Clergy—Removal – Part 2

A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a lawsuit brought against a denomination by a dismissed minister.

Church Law and Tax 2006-11-01

Clergy—removal – Part 2

* A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a lawsuit brought against a denomination by a dismissed minister. An ordained minister (Pastor Bob) began a ten-day ministry trip to a foreign country with another pastor. Upon his return to the United States, the other pastor sent a letter to a regional church official complaining about homosexual advances Pastor Bob had made during the trip. These advances made the other pastor so uncomfortable that he returned home sooner than planned. A few months later the regional church received several other written statements detailing similar inappropriate advances Pastor Bob had made against others. Pastor Bob was brought before a church disciplinary board on the charge of ‘unbecoming conduct with the same sex.’ He was not permitted to have counsel present but was allowed to have another minister appear with him for ‘personal support’ and to bring witnesses on his behalf. Pastor Bob was found guilty, and his ministerial credentials were suspended for one year. He was also asked to undergo counseling. A year later, the regional church approved Pastor Bob’s full reinstatement as a minister based on his completion of the restoration program. This decision was submitted to the national church for review and final disposition. The national church later informed Pastor Bob that it had decided to delay action on the reinstatement process until ‘matters pertaining to the specifics of the reinstatement process are further clarified.’ When Pastor Bob requested further information on why his reinstatement was being delayed, he was told that ‘there were some things they wanted to see.’ As a result, Pastor Bob was not reinstated as a minister.

Pastor Bob and his wife sued the national church and various officers (the ‘church defendants’) asserting claims of breach of contract, interference with business relationships, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and loss of consortium. The lawsuit also sought punitive damages, and a declaration that the national church lacked the legal authority to bring charges against him. A federal district court dismissed the case, and Pastor Bob appealed, insisting that all of this claims involved purely secular considerations that did not implicate the First Amendment. A federal appeals court disagreed:

It is clear that regardless of how the claims set forth in the plaintiffs’ complaint may be labeled, resolving the claims would require this court to enter into areas implicating the First Amendment. The claims of breach of contract, interference with business relationships, conspiracy, invasion of privacy, and defamation, as well as his request for a declaratory judgment that the charging body within the [national church] lacked the legal or other proper authority to bring charges against him, all implicate the [national church’s] internal disciplinary proceedings. As a result, this court cannot have jurisdiction over them. The [trial] court was also correct in holding that the emotional distress, loss of consortium, and punitive damages claims are derivative of the other claims. Therefore, the court’s lack of jurisdiction over the primary claims necessarily results in lack of jurisdiction over the secondary claims.

Pastor Bob noted that the Supreme Court in an earlier decision had ruled that the First Amendment may not be violated by ‘marginal civil court review’ of clergy discipline cases involving allegations of fraud or collusion, or when a church acts ‘in bad faith for secular purposes.’ Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The court rejected this possible basis for civil court review in this case, since (1) the possibility of such review was not endorsed, but merely left for later consideration; and (2) no other court has asserted jurisdiction over a clergy discipline case on these grounds.

Application. This case is important because it is one of the few courts to address the continuing viability of the ‘marginal civil court review’ exception announced by the Supreme Court in the Milivojevich case. While it is true that the Supreme Court left open the possibility of ‘marginal civil court review’ of clergy discipline cases on the limited grounds of fraud, collusion, or bad faith, it did not ‘endorse’ such an exception but rather left it for later consideration. Further, the court pointed out that in the past 30 years since the Milivojevich case no other court had intervened in a clergy discipline case on these grounds. Church of God, 153 Fed.Appx. 371 (6th Cir. 2005).

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