• Key point 8-06. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
* A Washington state court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving sexual harassment and retaliation claims made by a female associate pastor against her senior pastor as well as negligent supervision claims against her church and denomination. A church’s associate pastor (Pastor Sarah) alleged that the church’s senior pastor began making unwelcome sexual advances toward her shortly after she was employed by the church. These advances included frequent comments about her appearance and suggestive gestures and remarks. Pastor Sarah confronted the senior pastor, but he denied the accusations. Shortly after this encounter the senior pastor allegedly retaliated against Pastor Sarah by taking away her preaching assignments, expressing doubt about her continued employment, and making defamatory remarks about her. She submitted to the church a written statement accusing the senior pastor of sexual misconduct. The church referred the statement to an investigating committee composed of members from a different church (affiliated with the same denomination). The committee conducted an investigation and concluded that charges would not be filed against the senior pastor. Pastor Sarah appealed this decision to a denominational adjudicatory body which affirmed the decision of the investigating committee.
Having exhausted all recourse within her church and denomination, Pastor Sarah filed a “charge of discrimination” with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She accused her church, and a regional denominational agency (the “regional church”) having supervisory authority over the church, of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation. The EEOC concluded that Pastor Sarah failed to establish a civil rights violation. That same month, the regional church voted to dissolve Pastor Sarah’s pastoral relationship with her employing church. Pastor Sarah thereafter sought permission from the regional church to seek other ministerial positions, but regional church officials allegedly told her that she could not look for another job until she “resolved her issues” with the church. The regional church informed her that it would not circulate her resume to other churches, effectively denying her any chance of pastoral employment.
Pastor Sarah then sued her former senior pastor and church, and the regional church, in state court. She sued her former senior pastor for sexual harassment, retaliation, and defamation. She sued her former church for retaliation and negligent supervision, and the regional church for negligent supervision. Her case against the church and regional church centered on her claim that church authorities learned of the sexual harassment but failed to discipline the senior pastor and instead prevented her from seeking other work. A trial court dismissed all claims, and Pastor Sarah filed an appeal.
The court began its opinion by citing three controlling principles:
First, the “civil courts may adjudicate church-related disputes only if the dispute does not involve ecclesiastical or doctrinal issues.” However, it noted that “the first amendment [guaranty of religious freedom] does not provide churches with absolute immunity to engage in [wrongful] conduct. So long as liability is predicated on secular conduct and does not involve the interpretation of church doctrine or religious beliefs, it does not offend constitutional principles.”
Second, “if the church accused of wrongdoing is a member of a hierarchically-organized church that has ecclesiastical judicial tribunals, civil courts must defer to the highest church tribunal’s resolution of the matter, despite the fact that the dispute could be resolved by a civil court.
Third, the first amendment bars the civil courts from resolving employment-related disputes between a church and a pastor. It explained this so-called “ministerial exception” as follows:
Civil courts may not adjudicate matters involving a church’s selection of its spiritual leaders. This “ministerial exception” is a constitutionally-derived exception to civil rights legislation that “insulates a religious organization’s employment decisions regarding its ministers from judicial scrutiny.” It applies “when the disputed employment practices involve a church’s freedom to choose its ministers or to practice its beliefs.” Secular courts must avoid controversies between a church and its minister “because the introduction of government standards to the selection of spiritual leaders would significantly, and perniciously, rearrange the relationship between church and state.”
Applying these principles, the court concluded that it could resolve Pastor Sarah’s claims only if: (1) liability would be based on secular conduct and would not require the court to interpret church doctrine or religious beliefs; (2) an ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchically-structured church had not already resolved the matter; and (3) her claims did not involve a church’s ability to choose its ministers. The court concluded,
[Pastor Sarah’s] case centers on the claim that church authorities learned of the sexual harassment but failed to discipline [the senior pastor] and instead precluded her from seeking other work. But the church declined to discipline the senior pastor because its investigating committee and [national adjudicatory body] decided that insufficient evidence existed to file a charge. And the church’s Book of Order prohibits allowing a minister to transfer while charges are pending. Thus her negligent supervision claim would require a secular court to examine decisions made by ecclesiastical judicial bodies, and her retaliation claims would require a court to question and interpret the transfer rule in the church’s Book of Order. We can do neither without effectively undermining the church’s inherent autonomy. We thus affirm the trial court’s order dismissing the claims against the church and the [regional church].
The church also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the sexual harassment and retaliation claims against the senior pastor, noting that “it would be counterintuitive to hold that a court may not interfere with church doctrine and ecclesiastical decision-making but that it may examine claims made against individual religious authorities. Were we to do so, we would be permitting civil authorities to question and interpret church doctrine as surely as if we had allowed the suit to proceed against the church itself.”
Application. The ministerial exception has been almost universally recognized by both federal and state courts, and it provides churches with virtual immunity from employment discrimination claims by current or former ministers. Elvig v. Ackles, 98 P.3d 524 (Wash. App. 2004).
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