A federal court in Texas ruled that the first amendment prohibited it from resolving a wrongful dismissal and “racketeering” claim brought by a pastor against his denomination.

Church Law and Tax2003-01-01


Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

* A federal court in Texas ruled that the first amendment prohibited it from resolving a wrongful dismissal and “racketeering” claim brought by a pastor against his denomination. A minister (Pastor Allen) ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (“AME Church”) sued his Church for breach of contract and violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The lawsuit arose out of an alleged scheme by a Church leader to collect funds from church members through “pre-offerings” in order to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Pastor Allen alleged that other Church leaders were aware of this activity but did nothing to stop it, and that Church leaders retaliated against him for exposing the pre-offerings by refusing to appoint him to a pastoral position for five years. The court rejected Pastor Allen’s RICO claim on the ground that he lacked “standing.” In order to bring a civil RICO claim, a plaintiff must prove a “concrete financial loss of their own money.” Lost opportunity by itself does not constitute an injury that confers standing to bring a RICO claim. Therefore, “whistle-blowers” (those who suffer an adverse employment action after reporting alleged RICO violations) do not have standing to sue under RICO for the injury caused by their firing or other adverse actions by their employer. The court concluded, “Pastor Allen claims that his pastoral career has been destroyed as a result of the Church’s actions to silence him to continue the scheme alleged, and that he has lost pastoral income past, present, and future as a result of the Church’s actions. His allegations that the Church and its officials have failed to promote him, appoint him to a specific church, or provide him with housing and other similar employment-related guarantees and privileges do not entitle him to RICO standing.”

The court also rejected Pastor Allen’s breach of contract claim on first amendment grounds. It observed,

The free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment prohibits civil court inquiries into decisions made by religious organizations concerning the employment status of ministers …. A determination as to breach of a contract affecting the pastor’s employment benefits would involve more than secular questions of whether certain promises were made to him. His complaint links the circumstances of his contractual rights and alleged breach to the circumstances surrounding his ecclesiastical status and endorsement by the Church, as well as the policies and practices of the Church. In investigating his breach of contract claim, the court would have to inquire as to the Church’s motivations (be they secular or religious) for failing to provide him with the benefits conferred by Church law. Such an inquiry would involve delving into church policy and perhaps religious doctrine or practices; areas in which courts have traditionally refused to tread. The pastor’s claim inherently involves matters of church governance, and is not a purely secular matter. Therefore, in the absence of church invocation of the civil courts, resolution of such disputes is properly left to church officials.”

Application. This case demonstrates once again the difficulty that dismissed ministers have in challenging their dismissal in a civil court. Dunn v. Board of Incorporators of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2002 WL 1000920 (N.D. Tex. 2002).

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