• Key point 2-04.2. Some courts are willing to resolve disputes over the termination of clergy if they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.
* An Illinois court ruled that it could resolve a pastor’s claim that the church board acted improperly in dismissing him without complying with the church bylaws. A church’s bylaws contained a paragraph stating that “upon recommendation of the church board, the pastor’s service may be terminated by a vote of two-thirds of the members present and qualified to vote.” The church board voted to declare the pulpit vacant at two separate meetings, but both times fewer than two-thirds of the congregation voted to remove the pastor. The board voted a third time to remove the pastor, but did not submit the issue to a vote of the membership. Rather, it sent the pastor a letter informing him that his employment had been terminated. The following Sunday the pastor returned to the church to conduct services. Board members called the police, and police officers who arrived on the scene attempted to remove the pastor from the church during the service.
The pastor asked a court to issue an order preventing the church from dismissing him without following the procedures specified in the bylaws. The board members responded that the pastor had engaged in church activities while under the influence of alcohol in violation of the church’s employee handbook, and that the handbook gave them the power to terminate the pastor’s service. At trial, several church members testified that they saw the pastor, apparently under the influence of alcohol, at various church functions. The trial judge dismissed the case on the ground that it was an ecclesiastical dispute that had to be resolved by the church itself. The pastor appealed.
A state appeals court acknowledged that the civil courts “must not decide matters of religious doctrine,” but insisted that they could resolve church disputes “that do not require determination of any doctrinal issue.” Civil courts “may apply neutral legal principles to interpret provisions of religious documents involving nondoctrinal matters, to the extent that the analysis can be done in purely secular terms.”
The court rejected the church board’s claim that the employee handbook gave it the legal authority to remove the pastor without submitting the issue to a vote of church members. The court noted that the employee handbook “establishes an alcohol-free policy and states that the church may dismiss any employee who engages in church activities while under the influence of alcohol.” But this provision was superseded by the church bylaws, the court concluded, that spelled out a specific procedure for removing a pastor that required a vote of the membership. The court concluded, “The bylaws establish the procedure for removal of the pastor. Although the handbook specifies reasons for terminating a pastor’s employment, neither the handbook nor the covenant allows the boards to avoid the removal procedure established in the bylaws.”
The court noted that the first amendment does not prohibit court intervention “when the church fails to follow the procedures it has, itself, enacted.” In this case the church conceded that its board did not follow procedures set out in its bylaws for terminating the pastor. The court concluded that it did not need to “interpret religious law to decide the dispute.” Rather, it simply had to decide if the congregation had authorized its board to terminate its pastor’s service without following the bylaw procedures for terminating a pastor. The court can decide the issue by applying neutral legal principles to interpret the church’s bylaws and handbook.”
The court quoted an earlier decision by the United States Supreme Court: “Freedom to select the clergy, where no improper methods of choice are proven, we think, must now be said to have federal constitutional protection as a part of the free exercise of religion against state interference.” Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94 (1952). The Illinois court concluded, “Thus, any church, whether hierarchical or congregational, has the autonomy to select the clergy as long as the method of selection comports with the church’s governing law.” Since the church board had failed to comply with the church bylaws in dismissing the pastor, its action was void and could be nullified by a civil court so long as no interpretation of religious doctrine was involved.
Application. Most courts have refused to get involved in internal church disputes over the dismissal of ministers on the ground that any intervention would violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. This case illustrates that this view is not universally held. The court in this case was willing to review the pastor’s claim of wrongful termination on the ground that the church board failed to follow the church bylaws in removing him.
It is also worth noting that the church rejected the board’s argument that the church’s employee handbook, which authorized the board to remove any employee for violating the church’s moral standards, could not serve as a basis for removing the pastor (as a result of his alcohol consumption) since the bylaws specified a different procedure for removing the pastor that had to be followed. Ervin v. Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, 813 N.E.2d 1073 (Ill. App. 2004).
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