Denial of Tenure at Seminaries

Can a court resolve a professor’s claim that he was improperly denied tenure?

Church Law and Tax1991-07-01Recent Developments


Can a civil court resolve a seminary professor’s claim that he was improperly denied tenure? No, said a New Jersey appeals court. The professor had been hired to teach at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, an educational institution affiliated with the Reformed Church in America (the “Church”). The seminary was founded in 1784. Its purpose remains the preparation of “men and women for educational and faithful leadership in the church.” It offers no secular degrees or courses of study. Every president has been an ordained minister of the Reformed Church, and all faculty and administrators are ordained clergy. The seminary is accountable to the Church, and subject to the supervision of the Church’s Board of Theological Education. The seminary’s policies regarding appointments, tenure, and dismissals, are set forth in a comprehensive faculty personnel manual. A dispute arose at the seminary over the status of a professor who claimed to have been promised a tenured position at the completion of his doctoral studies by the previous seminary president. When the current president refused to honor the previous president’s alleged promise (which was not contained in any written agreement), the professor resigned and later sued the seminary for wrongfully denying him tenure, and for “forcing” him to resign. The professor argued that the former president had the legal authority to grant him a tenured position. The seminary vigorously denied the professor’s allegation, claiming that only the Board of Theological Education had such authority. The faculty manual was somewhat ambiguous on this point. The professor further insisted that the dispute did not involve religious doctrine, and accordingly the civil courts had jurisdiction. He urged the court to apply “neutral principles” of contract law in resolving the claim. A trial court dismissed the former professor’s lawsuit, and the case was appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court, and affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit. The court concluded that while the civil courts may resolve contract disputes involving religious organizations if no religious doctrine or practice is implicated, this was not the case here. On the contrary, a resolution of the professor’s claim that the former president (without the approval of the Board of Theological Education) had the authority to grant him a tenured position “would require a searching examination of the polity and administration of the [Reformed] Church. If, as presently appears, the locus of appointive authority is ambiguous, a careful scrutiny of past practices and customs would be necessary. To permit civil courts to probe deeply into the allocation of power within a religious organization would result in a pervasive secular intrusion into Church government and administration …. In short, insinuation by civil courts into the customs, usages of the bylaws and the constitution, into the administration and polity of the Church in the hope of uncovering clues with respect to where the power to grant tenure resides, would threaten the freedom of the Church from secular entanglement.” In support of its conclusion, the court cited with approval a case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom grants religious organizations “independence from secular control,” and the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” The court emphasized that it was not leaving the former professor “without a remedy.” It observed that the faculty manual provides an optional grievance procedure, and concluded that the Church and seminary “are obliged by their established procedures to provide [the professor] with a forum for resolution of his claim.” This case is yet another in a long line of court decisions refusing to resolve ministers’ claims of wrongful discharge. Alicea v. New Brunswick Theological Seminary, 581 A.2d 900 (N.J. Super. A.D. 1990).

Termination | Decisions of State and Lower Federal Courts

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