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 declined to resolve a dispute over the removal of a minister. An associate minister ("Jay") attended a meeting with members of his congregation in which members discussed their belief that an independent auditor should be hired to investigate possible financial improprieties by several church leaders and members involving church funds. Jay agreed with other church members that an independent auditor should be hired and the church’s financial records disclosed. Other members (the "dissidents") warned Jay that he would be fired if he did not change his position. When he refused to comply, the dissidents began seeking ways to remove him. Jay alleged that the dissidents misrepresented, to meetings of the church’s deacons and the elders committee, that he had borrowed funds from church members. Shortly after this accusation was made, the elders’ committee voted to terminate Jay’s employment. Jay sued the church, claiming that the church wrongfully terminated his employment in order to conceal financial improprieties and punish him for advocating disclosure of church financial records. Jay also claimed that the dissident members wrongly interfered with his contractual rights by making statements to the elders’ committee that he had borrowed money from church members in an effort to induce the church to terminate his employment. He also claimed that two dissidents defamed him by making statements regarding his borrowing of money from church members at deacons and elders committee meetings. A trial court dismissed the case on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The state supreme court affirmed this decision. The court began its opinion with the following observation:
Resolution of the plaintiff’s claims by a civil court would have required that the court adjudicate issues regarding the church’s governance, internal organization, and doctrine, and such judicial intervention would have limited the church’s right to select its religious leaders. The free exercise [of religion] clause of the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States … [does] not permit a court to substitute its secular judgment for a church’s judgment when the church makes decisions regarding the selection or retention of its pastor… . Without question, had the [trial] court exercised jurisdiction of the [case] it would have become entangled 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.
Jay insisted that the court was not barred by the first amendment from resolving his claims of defamation and interference with contract, since these claims were based on the actions of individual church members rather than the church itself. The court disagreed:
Upon our review of the pleadings in this case, we hold that [Jay’s] allegations of defamation against the individual [church members] cannot be considered in isolation, separate and apart from the church’s decision to terminate his employment. The individual [members] who purportedly uttered defamatory remarks … were church officials who attended meetings of the church’s governing bodies that had been convened for the purpose of discussing certain accusations against [Jay]. We can only conclude that if a civil court were to exercise jurisdiction … under these circumstances, the court would be compelled to consider the church’s doctrine and beliefs because such matters would undoubtedly affect [Jay’s] fitness to perform pastoral duties and whether the he had been prejudiced in his profession. Neither the free exercise [of religion] clause nor [the Virginia Constitution] permits a civil court to undertake such a role. Indeed, most courts that have considered the question whether the free exercise clause divests a civil court of jurisdiction to consider a pastor’s defamation claims against a church and its officials have answered that question in the affirmative.
Application. This case demonstrates the unwillingness of the civil courts to intervene in disputes involving issues of "internal governance" of hierarchical churches. Further, it is significant that the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that this principle should not be applied to the actions of individual church members in the course of official meetings of church boards and committees. Cha v. Korean Presbyterian Church, 553 S.E.2d 511 (Va. 2001).
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