Clergy—Removal – Part 1

A Maryland court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a pastor’s breach of contract and defamation claims against church officials.

Church Law and Tax2004-09-01

Clergy—removal – Part 1

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 Maryland court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a pastor’s breach of contract and defamation claims against church officials. Pastor Keith was a citizen of Trinidad who entered the United States on a visitor’s visa. He became the pastor of a missions church established by his denomination (“regional church”). He later applied for ordination with his denomination. While his application was pending, denominational officers received a complaint from a member of the missions church regarding Pastor Keith’s “dictatorial style.” Complaints about ordination candidates’ “style” were common, and did not raise any concerns. However, Pastor Keith responded to the complaint by becoming hostile and resistant to the counsel of denominational officers. As a result, the national church’s “board of credentials” decided that it was in Pastor Keith’s best interest to wait an additional year for ordination. During that year, the board of credentials recommended that he undergo counseling. Pastor Keith rejected this recommendation, and his relationship with denominational leaders deteriorated significantly. The regional church declared the missions church to be “in crisis,” meaning there was a moral, financial, or similar problem adversely affecting the ministry of the church. The national church reassigned Pastor Keith to a church in Trinidad, but he declined this assignment. He refused to vacate the church parsonage despite the fact that he quit performing any ministry or other activities for the church.

Pastor Keith later sued the regional church and various church officers on several grounds, including breach of employment contract and defamation. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Pastor Keith appealed. A state appeals court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving Pastor Keith’s claims. It began its opinion by noting that “the first amendment provides religious institutions with significant freedoms with regard to matters concerning theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.” The purpose of this exclusion is “to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice. Even where the dispute actually presented to the court is one that, if presented by any other set of litigants, would clearly be justiciable, if the resolution of that dispute between the litigants at hand would require the court to adjudicate matters of church doctrine or governance, or to second-guess ecclesiastical decisions made by a church body created to make those decisions, the matter falls outside the court’s authority.”

Since religious organizations “must be allowed to hire and fire their clergy members without government interference,” several courts have “carved out a ministerial exception to otherwise neutral employment discrimination laws, allowing religious institutions to select their clergy members without fear of reprisal from civil courts.” Further, this prohibition has grown to include employees whose “primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship,” or any position that is “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission” of the religious organization.

With regard to Pastor Keith’s claims, “it is quite clear that as a pastor for the church he was a clergy member, whose primary duties consisted of teaching, spreading the faith, and participation in religious worship. Thus, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to interfere with the [denomination’s] decision to ordain or relocate him.

Pastor Keith insisted that the civil courts could review his “purely secular” claims of breach of employment contract and defamation; and, his claims against denominational officers were not protected by the first amendment. The court disagreed, noting that he “misses the point because he fails to realize that consideration of his supposedly secular claims necessarily requires the court to delve into religious considerations.” It concluded,

Even assuming there was a contract, in evaluating the parties’ adherence to such a contract, the court would have to make a determination regarding whether Pastor Keith met the qualifications to act as a minister for the church. It appears that his responsibilities included faithfully attending church services, committing to the church, giving tithes and offerings, and maintaining “a spirit of Christian cooperation with staff,” and “a spirit-filled relationship with the Lord.” In considering the issues raised by Pastor Keith, the court would have to consider whether he was properly performing his job. Doing so would mandate the court to consider his adherence to religious tenants [sic], his spiritual successfulness, as determined by the church, his teaching skills, and his relationship with both clergy and worshipers. Such determinations are clearly prohibited …. Moreover, even though some of his duties are arguably “secular,” his success as a clergy member of the church would primarily be judged based on the religious tenets of the church.

The same reasoning applied to Pastor Keith’s defamation claim, since “when allegedly defamatory statements are made during the process of determining fitness for religious leadership positions, even if the statements are invalid and unfair, such speech is protected through the ambit of the first amendment freedom of religion provisions …. The defamation claim is based upon the same operative facts concerning his employment, his ordination, and his relocation. The only specific instance of defamation referenced in the lawsuit involves a letter sent by [a denominational official] to various church members regarding Pastor Keith’s behavior as pastor …. Even if [the letter contained] defamatory statements … this court may not consider the issue because it relates to Pastor Keith’s employment with the church. Clearly, any statements made by [denominational officers] with regard to Pastor Keith’s performance as a minister are protected by [the ministerial exception].”

The court also rejected Pastor Keith’s argument that the ministerial exception did not bar the civil courts from resolving his claims against church officials. It concluded, “Were we not to afford the same protections to church affiliated organizations and church leaders, the very purpose of the first amendment would be frustrated. Consideration of claims against any of these parties would be akin to judging the actions of the church itself, because they are responsible for carrying out the church’s mission.”

Application. This case illustrates the difficulty the ministers have in convincing the civil courts to resolve their employment-related claims against churches or denominational agencies. There is another interesting aspect to this case, however, and that is Pastor Keith’s immigration status. He is a citizen of Trinidad, and he entered the United States on a six-month visitor’s visa. He later filed an application to extend his stay, seeking a religious worker’s “R-1” visa, but this request was denied. For the next three years he was “out of status” and illegally in the United States, although he continued to be gainfully employed by the church. The employment of foreign workers by churches is currently being addressed in a 4-part series of articles in Richard Hammar’s Church Treasurer Alert newsletter. Bourne v. Center on Children, Inc., 838 A.2d 371 (Md. App. 2003).

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