Clergy Removal and Court Involvement

Courts can resolve clergy dismissal cases if consideration of ecclesiastical matters are not involved.

Church Law and Tax 1995-03-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

Key point: It is the prevailing view that the civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, particularly if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.

Key point: A small minority of courts are willing to review claims of wrongful dismissal by ministers if no inquiry into religious doctrine is required.

An Idaho court ruled that it had authority to resolve a lawsuit by a dismissed minister challenging his dismissal. A local church retained a new minister, but no contract or other written agreement was signed. At the time he was hired, the new minister informed the congregation that he would “make a vigorous effort” to expand the ministry of the church for one year, and at the end of one year re-evaluate the position. The church’s bylaws specified that the pastor’s term of office would be “perpetual,” and that the church board could force the pastor’s resignation only on the basis of an “immoral life” or living in a manner “openly contrary to the standards” of the church. Near the end of the pastor’s first year in office conflicts arose between the pastor and some members of the board. There was evidence that the pastor had insisted on resolving a 7-year-old tax problem but that the board was not wholly supportive of this plan. There was also evidence that the board and pastor disagreed over the sale of a parcel of church property and that the pastor “whited out” the name of a trustee on a resolution authorizing the sale and inserted his own name. The conflict intensified following the sale of the church property, and the pastor attempted to dismiss seven of the eight board members. The board ignored the pastor’s actions, and attempted to dismiss him. The pastor insisted that his term was perpetual, and that the board could not dismiss him except for immorality or a lifestyle inconsistent with the standards of the church. He insisted that these grounds did not exist and accordingly that the board had no authority to terminate him. The board filed a lawsuit, asking a court to prohibit the pastor from conducting any further church business or coming on to church premises. The pastor counter-sued the church board, claiming that it had wrongfully terminated him and breached his contract of employment. A trial court ruled in favor of the pastor, and the board appealed. It claimed that it had good cause to dismiss the pastor, and that the dispute was ecclesiastical and therefore beyond the authority of the civil courts to resolve.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision in favor of the pastor. In rejecting the board’s claim that the civil courts could not resolve this dispute because it was ecclesiastical in nature, the court observed:

[W]e agree with [the church] that it is not the place of the [civil courts] to decide matters that are ecclesiastical in nature, we disagree that the doctrine applies to this case. The issues before the … court and jury involved an employment contract, its alleged breach, the various reasons asserted for the breach and the damages related to that breach. Simply because a church is involved in litigation does not make the matter ecclesiastical. [The church] argues that the reasons the board listed for discharging [the pastor] were primarily ecclesiastical and for the … court to rule on those issues is beyond its jurisdiction as a court of law. The jury was not asked, however, to decide whether the asserted reasons for terminating [the pastor] were objectively valid, nor whether the action taken by the board was an ecclesiastical punishment. Instead, the jury was asked to determine if the reasons the board listed were, in fact, why the church fired [the pastor] and whether that action was proper under the church’s own bylaws. The bylaws were not simply church rules governing religious doctrine and policy, but were, rather, the bylaws of an Idaho nonprofit corporation governing its corporate affairs. We conclude that there were no ecclesiastical questions decided by the jury or the … court ….

What is the significance of this case to other churches? Consider the following: (1) It illustrates the confusion that often results in local churches because of unfamiliarity with a church’s bylaws. It is essential for church leaders to be familiar with the provisions of the church’s charter and bylaws, for these documents will determine the outcome of most disputes and misunderstandings. (2) It illustrates the importance of using precise language in defining the grounds for dismissal or discipline of clergy or church workers. The bylaws in this case specified that the pastor’s term of office would be “perpetual,” and that the church board could force the pastor’s resignation only on the basis of an “immoral life” or living in a manner “openly contrary to the standards” of the church. This language was unclear. Did the church really intend that the pastor’s term would be “perpetual,” meaning without end? Also, what did the church bylaws mean by “immoral life” or living in a manner “openly contrary to the standards” of the church? These ambiguities gave the civil courts the opportunity to intervene in an internal church dispute. (3) It illustrates the confusion that can result if a pastor a church do not enter into an employment contract that addresses all of the terms and condition of the employment relationship. (4) Finally, the court’s decision represents a minority view. The vast majority of courts would have rejected this court’s conclusion that the dispute between the pastor and his church was not ecclesiastical. It is the view of most courts that the pastor-church relationship is ecclesiastical in nature, and that the civil courts have no authority to determine “who will preach from the pulpit.” The court justified its decision by noting that “the jury was asked to determine if the reasons the board listed were, in fact, why the church fired [the pastor] and whether that action was proper under the church’s own bylaws.” The vast majority of courts have concluded that this type of inquiry is fundamentally ecclesiastical. Fellowship Tabernacle, Inc. v. Baker, 869 P.2d 578 (Idaho App. 1994).

See Also: Termination

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