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.
* The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed pastor’s lawsuit against his former church. A church hired a pastor (Pastor Jay) to serve as its educational pastor. Pastor Jay had various duties, including oversight of the church youth group, leading a Friday evening prayer service, teaching, and substituting for the senior pastor during worship services when needed. A few years after being hired, Pastor Jay met with members of the congregation who suspected "that certain church members and church leaders had participated in financial impropriety with regard to funds belonging to the church." Pastor Jay and the church members who attended the meeting believed that an independent auditor should be retained to review the financial records of the church.
The senior pastor learned of the meeting and informed Pastor Jay that “his future employment at the church was in jeopardy if he did not cease his advocacy of full disclosure of the church’s financial records." A few months after the meeting, some members of the church asked the senior pastor to respond in writing to accusations that he participated in the misuse of church funds. Shortly after this request, the church board convened a meeting in which a board member accused Pastor Jay of borrowing $100,000 from members of the church and not repaying them. The board later voted to terminate Pastor Jay’s employment.
Pastor Jay sued the church, claiming that he had a contract of employment that could only be terminated for good cause, and that the church wrongfully terminated him. He also alleged that he was terminated in violation of the public policy of Virginia, and that the board member who accused him of borrowing money from members and not repaying them had defamed him. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving it. Pastor Jay appealed.
The state supreme court began its opinion by observing that “civil courts are not a constitutionally permissible forum for a review of ecclesiastical disputes” and that “a civil court may neither interfere in matters of church government nor in matters of faith and doctrine.” It applied this principle to decisions by churches to select or remove a minister:
The right to choose ministers without government restriction underlies the well-being of religious community … for perpetuation of a church’s existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large. Any attempt by government to restrict a church’s free choice of its leaders thus constitutes a burden on the church’s free exercise rights. We also observe that many courts have concluded that any attempt by civil courts to limit a church’s choice of its religious representatives would constitute an impermissible burden upon that church’s first amendment rights… . It has thus become established that the decisions of religious entities about the appointment and removal of ministers and persons in other positions of similar theological significance are beyond the ken of civil courts. Rather, such courts must defer to the decisions of religious organizations on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law.
Applying these principles, the court concluded that the trial court properly dismissed the case since a resolution of those claims would have “entangled” it in “issues regarding the church’s governance as well as matters of faith and doctrine. And, as we have already held, ecclesiastical decisions regarding the appointment and removal of pastors are generally beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts.”
The court rejected Pastor Jay’s argument that his defamation claim could be resolved without becoming involved in church doctrine since any resolution of those claims would implicate his “fitness to perform pastoral duties.” Further, “to allow defamation suits to be litigated to the fullest extent against members of a religious board who are merely discharging the duty which has been entrusted to them by their church could have a potentially chilling effect on the performance of those duties.”
Application. This case confirms the general rule that the civil courts cannot resolve disputes involving the employment of ministers. The court extended this prohibition to collateral disputes arising from a decision to terminate a minister’s employment (defamation, breach of contract) since such matters are inseparable from the underlying dispute. Jae-Woo Cha v. Korean Presbyterian Church, 553 S.E.2d 511 (Va. 2001).
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