Clergy—Removal – Part 2

A Georgia court ruled that it was prevented from resolving a pastor’s claim that denominational rules were violated when he was transferred to a new parish.

Church Law and Tax2001-01-01


Key point 2-01.4. The selection of a minister is an ecclesiastical decision that the civil courts ordinarily will not review-even when it is alleged that a church failed to follow its own internal procedures in the selection of a minister, or the selection process was discriminatory. Initiating the Pastor-Church Relationship

A Georgia court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a pastor’s claim that denominational rules were violated when he was transferred to a new parish by his bishop. A pastor sued his denomination (the “national church”), asserting that a certain bishop failed to comply with the church’s internal rules when transferring him to another location. Specifically, the pastor alleged that the bishop transferred him without providing 60 days advance notice and without consulting with him 30 days before the transfer. The pastor claimed that the bishop’s actions violated the national church’s Book of Discipline. He asked a court to award him money damages for the national church’s breach of an alleged employment contract. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving employment disputes involving clergy. The pastor appealed, claiming that the issues before the court involved legal rights to compensation and benefits rather than ecclesiastical issues, and therefore the court was not barred from resolving his claims.

A state appeals court disagreed with the pastor, and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. It began its opinion by noting that the “civil courts have no jurisdiction to inquire into and to control the acts of the governing authority of a religious organization undertaken with reference to its internal affairs,” and that “as a matter of constitutional law, a hierarchical religious organization must be permitted to establish the rules and regulations by which it is governed.” The court noted that the national church was hierarchical in structure, and that the essence of the pastor’s claims were ecclesiastical in nature:

The central issue … is ecclesiastic in nature: A pastor is alleging that his bishop transferred him from one church to another church … without complying with two rules set forth in the church’s Book of Discipline. The very essence of [the pastor’s] complaint is that the bishop acted arbitrarily in exercising his authority within the church when he transferred [him] without proper notice and consultation as required by the Book of Discipline. Plainly, by instituting this lawsuit, [the pastor] sought to contest his supervising bishop’s right to manage and control the internal affairs of the church. But as [the pastor] concedes, the church provides for internal review of violations of the Book of Discipline. It is the church’s judicial council that exercises “appellate jurisdiction to review decisions of a Bishop,” and “renders declaratory judgments as to the meaning, application and effect of any paragraph of the Discipline.” Notwithstanding this level of appellate review, it is undisputed that the bishop for a district has final authority in decisions relating to the transfer and termination of pastors because the judicial council has no ability to enforce its rulings. Despite [the pastor’s] contention that the underlying issues are nonecclesiastical, the crux of this complaint concerns an internal church matter: a decision by a bishop to assign [a pastor] to a different church.

The court acknowledged that some church property disputes can be resolved by the civil courts on the basis of nondoctrinal “neutral principles of law.” However, it ruled that the pastor’s lawsuit could not be resolved through an application of purely neutral principles of law.

The court concluded: “The constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion includes the power of religious bodies to decide for themselves, free from interference by the state, matters of church government as well as matters of faith and doctrine. Here, any judicial interference with the bishop’s decision would involve an impermissible intrusion into religious affairs violative of the first amendment of the United States Constitution ….”

Application. This case illustrates the fundamental principle that the civil courts will not resolve disputes involving the legality of a church’s dismissal of a minister. In the Kedroff case (1952) the United States Supreme Court made the following observation:

There are occasions when civil courts must draw lines between the responsibilities of church and state for the disposition or use of property. Even in those cases when the property right follows as an incident from decisions of the church custom or law on ecclesiastical issues, the church rule controls. This under our Constitution necessarily follows in order that there may be free exercise of religion.

The Kedroff decision is important since it specifically holds that alleged violations or interference with “property rights” cannot serve as a basis for civil court review of a church’s decision regarding the qualifications or dismissal of a pastor where “the property right follows as an incident from decisions of the church … on ecclesiastical issues.” The Georgia court recognized and applied this important principle. Jay v. Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 531 S.E.2d 369 (Ga. App. 2000).

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