Key point 8-10.2. Some courts have not recognized the ministerial exception, usually because the complainant was not a minister in either status or function, or was employed by a secular organization.
Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A New Mexico court ruled that the First Amendment did not prevent it from resolving a claim of wrongful termination by a teacher at a church-operated elementary school. An adult female (the “plaintiff”) was employed as a teacher by a church-operated elementary school from 2009 to 2011. She alleged that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor in the summer of 2010. She reported her complaint to church officials, who issued a written reprimand to the supervisor. She claimed that her supervisor later retaliated against her, which ultimately led to the termination of her employment. She further claimed that the school and church breached her employment “contract” by terminating her despite assurances that she would be employed for the following school term. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit, claiming that the school was liable on the basis of breach of contract; and that the supervisor and other school officials were liable on the basis of retaliatory discharge, violation of the state Human Rights Act, intentional interference with contract, and defamation. The plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages, interest, attorney fees, and costs.
The defendants asked the court to dismiss all claims on the ground that they were barred by the so-called “church autonomy doctrine” which generally bars the civil courts from intruding into matters of church governance and administration. A trial court agreed with the defendants, and dismissed all claims. The plaintiff appealed, claiming that the church autonomy doctrine does not prohibit breach of contract claims and does not apply to individuals sued in their individual capacity as opposed to churches.
The court began its opinion by noting:
The church autonomy doctrine prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity. The doctrine is based on the First Amendment, which states in pertinent part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The church autonomy doctrine protects both interests embodied in the First Amendment. First, it prevents civil legal entanglement between government and religious establishments by prohibiting courts from trying to resolve disputes related to ecclesiastical operations. Second, it protects the free exercise of religion by limiting the possibility of civil interference in the workings of religious institutions.
But the court cautioned that the immunity provided by the church autonomy doctrine is not absolute. It does not apply “to purely secular decisions, even when made by churches.” Before a court concludes that the church autonomy doctrin e is implicated:
It first must analyze each element of every claim and determine whether adjudication would require the court to choose between competing religious visions, or cause interference with a church’s administrative prerogatives. The court must next examine the remedies sought by the plaintiff and decide whether enforcement of a judgment would require excessive procedural or substantive interference with church operations. If the answer to either of those inquiries is in the affirmative, then the dispute is truly of a religious nature and the claim is barred from secular court review. If, however, the dispute can be resolved by the application of purely neutral principles of law and without impermissible government intrusion there is no First Amendment shield to litigation.
breach of contract
The plaintiff claimed that the school and church breached her employment contract by dismissing her, despite prior assurances that her contract would be renewed for the following term. The court concluded that a resolution of this claim, against the church and school, would not require the court to interfere with church governance or internal administration:
In her complaint, plaintiff alleges that the church made express and implied promises to her concerning her employment, which she reasonably relied upon in accepting employment. She alleges that the church breached its promises to her, among them the failure to timely notify her of non-renewal and the failure to timely terminate her teaching contract year with just cause. As pled, it appears that she can succeed on her breach of contract claim without any religious intrusion. The trial court does not need to determine whether the church had cause to terminate plaintiff’s employment, but only whether it complied with its contractual obligation with respect to the timeliness of the notice it provided to her.
The second step in the court’s two-step analysis required it to examine the remedy being sought: “In terms of remedy, plaintiff does not seek reinstatement of her teaching position, but seeks only monetary damages. Defendants do not contend that entering a money judgment against the church would require excessive interference with church operations. Thus … plaintiff’s breach of contract claim does not appear to be religious in nature and thus does not implicate First Amendment concerns as a matter of law.”
The court cautioned that “if, at some later stage in the proceedings, it becomes apparent that plaintiff’s breach of contract claim in fact turns on matters of doctrinal interpretation or church governance, then summary judgment in favor of the church may be proper.”
claims against individual defendants
The plaintiff raised a novel argument, claiming that the church autonomy doctrine did not apply to her claims against the individual defendants. Rather, she insisted, it only applies to lawsuits against churches and church schools. The court agreed:
The immunity afforded by the church autonomy doctrine is not triggered simply by the subject matter of the complaint. Instead, the church autonomy doctrine applies only if judicial resolution of the claims would violate the First Amendment. This is a fact-specific and claim-specific inquiry, an inquiry that the district court did not engage in here. We are not persuaded that the resolution of plaintiff’s claims against [her supervisor and church officials] will necessarily result in religious entanglement. We thus conclude that the trial court erred in dismissing them as a matter of law.
The court again conceded that “if it appears at a later stage of this case that plaintiff’s claims against [the individual defendants] cannot be resolved without religious entanglement, then those claims may properly be dismissed.”
What This Means For Churches:
This case is instructive for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that employers may violate state and federal employment discrimination laws by “retaliating” against employees because they complained about discrimination on the job. Church leaders should never terminate, demote, or take any other action against an employee that may be perceived as “retaliation” for making a claim of unlawful discrimination without first consulting with legal counsel.
Second, the court concluded that the church autonomy doctrine does not insulate the “secular decisions” of churches and church schools from legal scrutiny. However, the court made clear that if any time while a lawsuit is pending it becomes clear that any resolution of the lawsuit would implicate a court in matters of faith or doctrine, then the case must be dismissed.
Third, the court reached the novel conclusion that the church autonomy doctrine does not necessarily apply to individuals, even if employed by a church. 331 P.3d 997 (N.M. App. 2014).