Dismissed Minister Sues Former Church

Courts are reluctant to resolve employment disputes between ministers and churches.

Church Law and Tax 1997-09-01


Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, especially if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.

A Minnesota court ruled that the first amendment’s “nonestablishment of religion” clause prevented it from resolving a dismissed minister’s lawsuit against his former church. A Lutheran church installed a new pastor. The “letter of call” described certain elements of the relationship between the church and pastor, including the terms of a compensation package which was subject to annual review. Financial problems and conflicts between church members and their previous pastor regarding theological and administrative matters existed at the church before the new pastor’s arrival and continued throughout his tenure as pastor. Several families left the church because of differences with the new pastor. Conflicts within the church heightened. The church council asked the pastor to leave a council meeting and to respond to a list of concerns. The church formed a task force to consider remedies for the church’s financial difficulties. At the task force meetings, church members identified various aspects of the pastor’s job performance as reasons certain members had left the church and others had quit contributing financially to the church. A few months later the pastor informed his synod that he wanted to pursue another call and interviewed with five other synods. At this same time the church council recommended a budget for the new year that reduced the pastor’s annual salary by $16,000. The church council president also drafted a report that included a request for the pastor’s resignation. The pastor claimed that he was physically and emotionally unable to continue his duties as pastor after receiving the council president’s report and that he was unable emotionally to formulate a response to the demand for his resignation. A few weeks later the congregation adopted a new budget that reduced the amount available for pastoral services to a mere $3,368. The pastor sued the church, asserting claims of breach of contract, wrongful discharge, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. In addition, the pastor sued his synod for interference with contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and defamation. A trial court summarily dismissed the lawsuit against both the church and synod on the ground that judicial intervention was barred by the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. The pastor appealed this decision. A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It began its opinion by noting that an exercise of governmental authority does not violate the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause only if it (1) has a secular purpose, (2) neither inhibits nor advances religion as its primary effect, and (3) does not create excessive entanglement between church and state. The court focused on the third requirement, and observed that “if a claim involves core issues of ecclesiastical concern, the potential for excessive governmental entanglement precludes judicial review.” On the other hand, if a court “can resolve the dispute by looking only to neutral principles of law … judicial review is permissible.” The court then addressed the main legal claims made by the pastor.

breach of contract and wrongful discharge

The pastor asserted that the church breached its contract with him and wrongfully discharged him by violating provisions of the church’s constitution and the terms of his call. Specifically, he claimed that by approving the budget with the large salary decrease the church breached its contract with him and in effect discharged him without following its own procedures. He argued that the church did not properly terminate his call because it did not articulate any of the six reasons for termination described in the church’s constitution. He also claimed that the church breached its contract by removing him from the church finance committee, by holding church council and task force meetings when he was absent, by failing to publish the most recent budget three weeks prior to the congregational vote, and by failing to notify him properly of task force meetings. The court rejected the pastor’s claims:

Courts generally refrain from considering claims that require “a searching and therefore impermissible inquiry” into church governance …. [The pastor’s] claims … relate to his appointment and discharge as a pastor and are fundamentally connected to issues of church governance. Adjudication of these claims also would necessitate inquiry into the church’s motives for proposing to decrease [his] salary and for taking the other actions asserted by [him] as breaches of contract. These claims, therefore, involve strictly ecclesiastical concerns ….

The church constitution also states that the church—pastor relationship can be terminated if the pastor is disqualified on “grounds of doctrine, morality, or continued neglect of duty.” [The pastor’s] call letter discusses his spiritual obligations to the church, including to “preach and teach the Word of God; to conduct public worship; to administer the sacraments; to provide pastoral care and leadership.” Judicial review of [the pastor’s] claims, thus, would require an evaluation of scripture, doctrine, and moral principles. This is precisely the type of searching inquiry that intrudes into church doctrine and church administrative matters and engenders a prohibited relationship between the church and the judiciary.

covenant of good faith and fair dealing

Did the church and synod violate an implied “covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” as the pastor claimed. No, said the court, since Minnesota law does not recognize implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing in employment contracts. Quoting an earlier state supreme court decision, the court noted that “[t]o imply into each employment contract a duty to terminate in good faith would seem to subject each discharge to judicial incursions into the amorphous concept of bad faith. We are not persuaded that protection of employees requires such an intrusion on the employment relationship or such an imposition on the courts.”

intentional infliction of emotional distress

The pastor claimed that the church’s conduct and statements by church members caused him severe emotional distress. Specifically, he pointed to several statements regarding an intention to remove him from his position as pastor, several statements about his job performance, his removal from several church committees, submission of written “concerns” about his job performance, and the holding of church meetings without informing him or members of his family. The court noted that in order for the church to be guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress the pastor had to prove that (1) the conduct was extreme and outrageous, (2) the conduct was intentional or reckless, (3) it caused emotional distress, and (4) the distress was severe. The court concluded that the pastor could not prove intentional infliction of emotional distress for two reasons. First, a court would have to conclude that the church “intended” to causes him distress. This would force the court to “review the motivations for the church’s actions”-a prohibited inquiry since “the first amendment prohibits judicial inquiry into motivations for a church’s pastoral employment decisions.” Second, the pastor’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress also failed because the church’s actions “were not extreme and outrageous.” The court observed that “conduct is extreme and outrageous if it is so atrocious that it passes the boundaries of decency and is utterly intolerable to the civilized community.” The pastor had not met this difficult standard.

interference with contract

The pastor claimed that the synod wrongfully interfered with his contract with the church by communicating certain information to members of the church council and by failing to discipline the church for violation of the synod’s constitution. The court noted that interference with contract is legally justified if the conduct is “reasonable in light of all the circumstances of the case.” It concluded that in order to determine whether or not the synod’s actions were justified, a court

would have to consider whether the bishop and his assistants acted reasonably. This analysis would require a review of the duties of the bishop and his assistants, matters of church governance within the synod, the relationship between the church and the synod, the synod’s obligation to provide pastoral care, the synod’s obligation to discipline its member churches for violations of the synod’s constitution, and the bishop’s authority to settle disputes within the synod’s member churches. These matters are ecclesiastical concerns not reviewable under the first amendment.

defamation against the church

The pastor claimed that members of the church defamed him by making the following statements about him in public meetings that harmed his reputation and his ability to obtain another call: he did not attend a wedding rehearsal; he made a false statement regarding a church member’s attendance at a retirement party; he insisted that his salary should be paid before the church’s mortgage; he failed to visit in the hospital a woman with cancer; he failed to respond to a member’s telephone call regarding an infant’s death; he breached his duty of confidentiality by telling others of a member’s abusive father and by stating that the member had a problem with authority; he charged $500 for conducting a wedding; he received eleven weeks of vacation; he had jeopardized the church’s insurance policy by taking the church bus to camp; and that while out of town he returned only for the funerals of friends. The court concluded that these statements did not defame the pastor, since they were protected by a “conditional privilege”. The court explained that “a communication is conditionally privileged … if it is made upon a proper occasion, from a proper motive, and … based upon reasonable or probable cause.” This principle rests upon the courts’ determination that “statements made in particular contexts or on certain occasions should be encouraged despite the risk that the statements might be defamatory.” The court concluded that the members’ alleged statements about the pastor qualified for this privilege since they all were communicated “at task force meetings or church council meetings and dealt with [the pastor’s] actions as a pastor.” Further, there was no evidence that the members were acting “out of the kind of malice or ill will that defeats the privilege.”

defamation against the synod

The pastor claimed that he was defamed when a bishop’s assistant told a church official that he was “paranoid.” This statement was made during a phone conversation in which the church official and the bishop’s assistant discussed conflicts in the church, the pastor’s position at the church, and the pastor’s compensation. The court found these comments to be “within the conditional privilege”. Further, there was no evidence that the bishop’s assistant made the statement out of malice or ill will.

Application. This case illustrates the civil courts’ reluctance to resolve employment disputes between ministers and churches. Further, it illustrates the important protection of the qualified or conditional privilege in the event a church is sued for defamation. Of course, the conditional privilege assumes that statements are made solely to other members with an interest in the subject being discussed, and that the statements are not made with malice or ill will. Singleton v. Christ the Servant Evangelical Lutheran Church, 541 N.W.2d 606 (Minn. App. 1996). [ Termination, Defamation, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes, The Establishment Clause]

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