Clergy—Removal – Part 1

An Indiana court concluded that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a claim by a dismissed pastoral associate that she had been defamed by church officials.

Church Law and Tax2002-11-01


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.


* An Indiana court concluded that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a claim by a dismissed pastoral associate that she had been defamed by church officials. In 1987 a woman ("Linda") was hired by a Catholic church as a pastoral associate and signed an employment contract for a three-year term. In 1990 Linda allegedly executed a second three-year contract with the church that was to run through 1993. In 1992 the church employed a new pastor who met with Linda and gave her the choice of either resigning or being fired. Linda chose to be fired. She claimed that the pastor told her that the reason she was being fired was "that she intimidated him, that they could not get along, and that he did not like working with her." The church insisted that Linda had been fired for her "expression of unorthodox theological views and conduct offensive to church teachings." Linda sued her church for defamation, claiming that the pastor had "unlawfully, untruthfully, and intentionally made misleading and slanderous remarks" about her and had "implied that there was something of a bad and sinister nature" about her, "thereby causing her irreparable harm, injury, and damages and rendering her sick, stressed, and physically debilitated." Specifically, Linda alleged that after she was fired the pastor stated that she "cannot be trusted with seven-year-old children"; that the reasons for her termination were "personal and confidential"; and that she was "incapable of Christian ministry" and had a "vindictive heart."

While her lawsuit was pending, Linda applied for a position as director of a "program for church leaders" at a Catholic university. A search committee unanimously recommended that she be hired for the position. However, when the university president learned of the recommendation, he denied her the position because she was suing the diocese. Linda believed that diocesan officials had contacted the university and induced them to avoid hiring her. As a result, she amended her pending lawsuit to include an allegation that the diocese had interfered with the university’s hiring process and "blacklisted" her. A trial court dismissed these claims on the ground that they were barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. Linda appealed.

The appeals court began its opinion by noting that "the central issue in this case is whether the first amendment to the United States Constitution bars Linda’s claims against the diocese. The first amendment … prohibits courts from resolving doctrinal disputes or determining whether a religious organization acted in accordance with its canons and bylaws …. If the resolution of the 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." The court acknowledged that the first amendment "does not entirely prohibit courts from opening their doors to religious organizations" since a court "can apply neutral principles of law to churches without violating the first amendment." However, the application of neutral principles of law to a church "has occurred only in cases involving church property or in cases where a church’s actions could not have been religiously motivated." Therefore, "if, in resolving Linda’s claims of interference with a business relationship and blacklisting we would be required to interpret Catholic precepts and procedures to determine whether the allegedly wrongful behavior was undertaken in compliance with religious teaching, then the first amendment bars our inquiry, and the trial court did not err when it dismissed the claims. If, on the other hand, review of the claims would not require any inquiry into religious doctrine or practice, but rather involves application of secular standards to secular conduct, the first amendment does not prevent Linda from proceeding with her suit."

The court concluded that a resolution of Linda’s claims would require a probing inquiry into theological issues, and therefore her lawsuit had to be dismissed. It rejected Linda’s claim that church doctrine was an "after-the-fact rationalization" by the diocese of its "allegedly illegal behavior," since "the first amendment prevents this court from scrutinizing the possible interpretations of [the church’s] statements and their purported reasons for uttering them."

Application. This case demonstrates the difficulty faced by ministers (and church employees performing ministerial functions) in pursuing legal remedies on account of their dismissal. Note also that the court did not question the university’s authority to deny Linda employment because she was suing the diocese. Many churches have adopted similar policies, and this case can be cited in support of the enforceability of such policies. Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, Inc., 755 N.E.2d 201 (Ind. App. 2001).

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