Denominational Agency Employment Dispute Won’t Go to Court

Court involvement would impede on First Amendment rights.

Lewis v. Seventh Day Adventists Lake Region Conference, 978 F.2d 940 (6th Cir. 1992)

Key point: The dismissal of a minister by a denominational agency generally will not be reviewed by the civil courts, even if the agency does not comply with its bylaws in dismissing the minister.

A federal appeals court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from reviewing the decision of a denomination agency to dismiss a minister.

A Seventh Day Adventist minister was employed by a denominational agency as a minister to a number of churches. Disputes arose between the minister and the agency over a number of issues including the agency's handling of church finances. The agency eventually dismissed the minister. Soon after the dismissal, the minister filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the agency was guilty of breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the minister appealed. A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit. It began its opinion by noting that "the Supreme Court has long held that on matters of church discipline, faith, practice, and religious law, the [first amendment's guaranty of religious freedom] requires civil courts to refrain from interfering with the determinations of [denominational tribunals]." It quoted with approval from a landmark 1976 decision of the Supreme Court:

[W]hether or not there is room for "marginal civil court review" under the narrow rubrics of "fraud" or "collusion" when church tribunals act in bad faith for secular purposes, no "arbitrariness" exception—in the sense of an inquiry whether the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations—is consistent with the constitutional mandate that civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law. For civil courts to analyze whether the ecclesiastical actions of a church judicatory are in that sense "arbitrary" must inherently entail inquiry into the procedures that canon or ecclesiastical law supposedly require the church adjudicatory to follow, or else into the substantive criteria by which they are supposedly to decide the ecclesiastical question. But this is exactly the inquiry that the first amendment prohibits . . . . Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 423 U.S. 696 (1976).

The appeals court concluded that "the first amendment bars civil courts from reviewing decisions of religious judicatory bodies relating to the employment of clergy. Even when, as here, [a dismissed minister] alleges that the religious tribunal's decision was based on a misapplication of its own procedures and laws, the civil courts may not intervene." The court rejected the minister's claim that the "highest" church agency had not yet ruled on his dismissal and accordingly the civil courts were not barred from reviewing it. The court observed that this argument, "if upheld, would require a civil court to conduct a review of ecclesiastical law to determine which tribunal is the highest. This is exactly the sort of inquiry that the first amendment forbids."

See Employment practices, Welter v. Seton Hall University, 608 A.2d 206 (N.J. 1992) and Alicea v. New Brunswick Theological Seminary, 608 A.2d 218 (N.J. 1992).

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