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 Michigan court dismissed a lawsuit brought against a church by a former pastor who was terminated as a result of a consensual relationship he initiated with a female church employee. A church hired an associate pastor ("Phil"). Three years later, Phil was promoted to senior pastor. As senior pastor, he was responsible for leading worship services, conducting educational classes, furthering the teachings of the church, and making annual reports regarding church activities to a parent denomination. Phil remained employed as senior pastor until church leaders terminated his employment three years later. Phil claimed that he was terminated because he sought to have a relationship with a single female employee of the church. According to Phil, the church had no policy or bylaw prohibiting two single adult employees from pursuing a consensual relationship. Phil further alleged that he could not be terminated by the church without "just cause," and that no such cause existed. Phil sued the church claiming breach of an implied employment contract, discharge against public policy, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and conspiracy. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on constitutional grounds, and Phil appealed. On appeal, Phil argued that civil courts have jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters involving property rights, and a contract, including an employment contract, involves a property right. The court disagreed. It applied what it called the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine," which prevents civil courts "from determining the correctness of an interpretation of canonical text or some decision relating to government of the religious polity. Whenever a dispute involves questions of religious doctrine or organization or government of the church, the court loses jurisdiction." The court concluded,
In the present action, the alleged employment contract was not one entered into with the secular world, but was an internal contract between the church and Phil, a member and minister of the church… . Further, both this court and our [state] supreme court have held that a church’s decision regarding assignment or employment of clergy is a matter of ecclesiastical polity in which the courts may not interfere. Similarly, the decision in this case to terminate Phil entailed ecclesiastical polity because it was a determination regarding who would minister to the congregation. We conclude that the trial court did not err when it determined that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevented it from exercising jurisdiction over Phil’s employment contract claims, and dismissal of those claims … was proper.
Phil also argued that if the church’s board of directors acted outside its authority in terminating him, the church’s constitutional protection is lost. The court disagreed. It observed, "Contrary to Phil’s argument, the case law is clear that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine bars a court from determining whether a church violated its own policies or procedures. In this case, whether [the church] acted within its authority in terminating Phil would entail a determination whether it violated its policies and, therefore, was not within the jurisdiction of the trial court."
The court noted that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine not only barred Phil’s wrongful termination claim. It also barred his other claims. The court concluded, "In this case, Phil alleged defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. Review of the elements of these causes of action indicates that his claims could not be resolved without inquiry into matters of religious doctrine and subjective judgments made by religious officials. A review of that nature is clearly precluded by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine."
Phil also complained that the trial court had dismissed his lawsuit without allowing him to pursue discovery (depositions, subpoenas, interrogatories, etc.). The court concluded that "summary disposition is appropriate if there is no reasonable chance that further discovery will result in factual support for the party opposing the motion. Here, discovery was not going to result in factual support for Phil’s position where the trial court lacked jurisdiction and his claims were barred as a matter of law."
Application. This case is important for three reasons. First, it illustrates the unwillingness of the civil courts to review decisions by churches to terminate ministers. Second, it demonstrates that this unwillingness extends not only to wrongful termination claims, but also related claims including defamation, emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. Third, the court ruled that the trial court had acted properly in dismissing Phil’s lawsuit before he had been permitted to pursue "discovery." The discovery stage of a lawsuit can be lengthy and expensive, and may involve numerous depositions and subpoenas. The court concluded that discovery is not warranted in cases for which the ultimate outcome is not in doubt, and this includes clergy termination disputes. Lynch v. Church of Today, 2001 WL 765883 (Mich. App. 2001).
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