Clergy Removal – Part 2

A federal court in Puerto Rico ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed pastor’s lawsuit against his former church.

Church Law and Tax 2003-09-01

Clergy Removal – Part 2

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 federal court in Puerto Rico 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 pastor was dismissed from his position by a regional board of his denomination, and sued the national church for “unjust termination” and defamation. He also demanded severance pay and all unpaid salary and vacation pay. The court began its opinion by noting that there was no evidence that the national church was the pastor’s employer, and therefore it could not be liable for any of the employment-related claims. The court also refused to resolve the case because of constitutional considerations. It observed, “An additional reason warranting dismissal of this action is the well-established principle that courts are not the proper forum to decide matters of ecclesiastical concern. [The pastor] argues that the court has the authority to resolve the present lawsuit because it involves matters of purely secular origin. His contention is misguided. A church’s selection of its own clergy is a core matter of ecclesiastical self-governance with which the state may not constitutionally interfere.” Sanchez v. The Wesleyan Church Corporation, 218 F.Supp.2d 136 (D. Puerto Rico 2002).

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