• 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 North Carolina dismissed a lawsuit brought by a pastor against his former church in which he claimed that the church had violated his rights under federal electronic privacy laws by searching his laptop computer for pornography, failing to follow denominational procedures in investigating him, and defaming him. A minister (Pastor Eric) was employed by a church as its senior pastor for four years. During that time, formal allegations of misconduct were brought against him. These allegations included using his laptop computer in his church office to view pornography, and sexual relations with a female church member. Pastor Eric denied any wrongdoing. Upon hearing of the allegations, members of the church’s “investigation committee” entered Pastor Eric’s office and attempted to access information on his laptop computer. Pastor Eric later resigned as a result of the allegations, and received a severance package.
The church sent a copy of Pastor Eric’s resignation letter to each member, along with a letter from a church board member stating that allegations of wrongdoing had been brought against Pastor Eric but not providing any specifics. Both letters stated that the resignation was due to illness. The church’s letter also described the severance agreement.
Pastor Eric later sued the church on the basis of the following alleged wrongs: (1) violation of the procedure for disciplining a minister as set forth in denominational bylaws; (2) violation of the right to privacy; (3) slander, which subjected him to ridicule, embarrassment and emotional distress and damaged his reputation; (4) violation of the federal Electronic Privacy Act; (5) infliction of emotional distress; and (6) breach of implied contract.
The church asked the court to dismiss the case because of the “inherently religious nature of the decisions at issue.” The court agreed that it was forbidden by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from inquiring into matters relating to a church’s internal governance.
freedom of religion
Pastor Eric argued that “the issues presented in this case will not require this court to review the internal judicial process of the church; they will not require inquiry into the doctrinal reasons and motivations of an ecclesiastical tribunal.” He insisted that his lawsuit sought to protect his “civil, contract and property rights, a resolution of which will not require this court to probe into the spiritual or ecclesiastical matters that the first amendment prohibits.” The court disagreed, noting that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that there is “no dispute that questions of church discipline … are at the core of ecclesiastic concern.” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The court concluded:
Each allegation [in Pastor Eric’s lawsuit] relates to him in his capacity as the church’s senior pastor. Thus, in deciding the issues raised in his lawsuit, the court would in essence be made to inquire into the church’s decisions regarding its own internal management, and discipline of its clergy. Furthermore, if the court did not agree with the procedure used and the effects therefrom, in holding the church liable, the court would be substituting its laws and disciplinary action for that of the church. Each claim put forth by Pastor Eric deals simply with the procedures and consequences resulting from the church performing its function of disciplining its clergy. In other words, although Pastor Eric cites to various state courts’ opinions which allow court inquiry into church actions that are not religious in nature, the United States Supreme Court and [other federal courts] have consistently held that churches must have “the power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine” …. If this court is to inquire into whether the church followed the proper procedure called for by the [denomination’s] Book of the Order in going about its investigation of the allegations against Pastor Eric, this too would violate the first amendment. For … such “detailed reviews” of churches’ “highest tribunals” are constitutionally impermissible.
The same is true of Pastor Eric’s other claims. The harm he claims he suffered as a result of the alleged torts is merely a consequence of the procedural actions taken by the church administration in investigating the allegations made about him. Because of the dictates of the first amendment, the court does not have proper authority to inquire any further into the decisions of the church authorities in dealing with such issues of discipline and church law.
nonestablishment of religion
The court concluded that the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause also prohibited it from resolving Pastor Eric’s lawsuit. The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to prohibit more than governmental attempts to establish churches. It also prohibits government efforts to inhibit religion or to foster “excessive entanglement” between church and state. The court concluded that any attempt by a civil court to intervene in an internal church dispute involving the status of a pastor would violate these protections. The court observed, “Government entanglement does not result solely from situations where there is a state assistance or sponsorship of a religious institution. Government entanglement with religion is likely to arise when the situation requires continued government surveillance of church activities …. The case law suggests that a civil court’s investigation of such matters as church disciplinary action and church law are forbidden as offensive to the establishment clause, as such inquiry results in excessive governmental entanglement with religion.”
The court acknowledged that the civil courts may inquire into property disputes involving no inquiry into church polity or doctrine. However, such cases “differ sharply” from the present case which involved “the issue of internal church governance, and particular methods of investigation chosen by the church in the face of allegations of improper conduct of its senior pastor.”
The court concluded that “a decision about the nature, extent, administration, and termination of a religious ministry falls within the ecclesiastical sphere that the first amendment protects from civil court intervention. Otherwise courts would be required to monitor the investigative procedures of churches. Such extensive monitoring clearly results in excessive entanglement of church and state.”
Application. There are two noteworthy aspects to this case. First, in the September-October 2002 issue of Church Law & Tax Report we addressed a case in which a federal court in Wisconsin ruled that a church violated a youth pastor’s rights under federal electronic privacy laws when it searched his office computer without consent and used the information it gathered to terminate him. Fischer v. Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Inc., 207 F.Supp.2d 914 (W.D. Wis. 2002). The federal district court in North Carolina reached a different conclusion regarding this issue. It concluded that it was barred by the first amendment from addressing this and other claims.
Second, the church entered into a severance agreement with Pastor Eric which apparently did not contain a provision releasing the church from all liability. Normally, such provisions are included in severance agreements, and if drafted properly, they can bar disgruntled employees from later suing their former employers as Pastor Eric did in this case. Jacobs v. Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church, 214 F.Supp.2d 552 (W.D.N.C. 2002).
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