Dismissed Ministers Sue Church and Denomination

Courts cannot intervene in ministerial employment disputes.

Church Law and Tax 1992-07-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

An Ohio appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by two dismissed ministers against their church and denomination. In 1983, a church hired a husband and wife as co-pastors. A contract was signed that specified that their ministry could be “terminated by either party upon 90 days written notice.” In 1987, the husband and wife were dismissed as pastors by the church. Later that year, they filed a lawsuit against their former church, alleging that (1) the church breached its oral commitment to them to retain them for “seven to ten years”; (2) the church dismissed them without “good cause”; (3) two church officers wrongfully interfered with their employment contract; (4) the church defamed them by publishing negative comments regarding their ministry and alleged financial misconduct: (5) the church (and two officers) subjected them to severe emotional distress by having their checks dishonored and by having the police physically remove them from the church during a worship service. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the lawsuit “failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The former pastors appealed. A state appeals court upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit. The court began its opinion by observing that “the Supreme Court of the United States has established the general rule that religious controversies are not a proper subject of civil court inquiry, and that civil courts must accept ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals as it finds them.” In rejecting the co-pastors’ first two claims, the court observed: “The question of just cause under either an oral or written contract necessarily concerns internal church discipline governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law.” In rejecting the co-pastors’ third claim, the court noted: “According to the constitution and bylaws [of the church] the officers … comprise the general board. If involuntary termination is deemed appropriate by the general board, the board shall make appropriate recommendations to the congregation for its vote. Review of subjective judgments by religious officers and bodies, such as involuntary termination of co-pastors, necessarily requires inquiry into ecclesiastical matters. Civil courts cannot constitutionally intervene in such a dispute.” In rejecting the claim of defamation against the church for publishing remarks critical of the co-pastors’ ministry and financial dealings, the court concluded: “One who falsely and without a privilege to do so publishes a slander which ascribes to another conduct, characteristics, or a condition incompatible with the proper conduct of his lawful business, trade, or profession is liable to the other. However, inquiry by a civil court into the truth or falsity of the statements by [church officials] would require review of subjective judgments made by religious officers and bodies concerning [the co-pastors’] conduct of the pastorate and financial misdealings. Inquiry would be ecclesiastical in nature and constitutionally prohibited.” In rejecting the co-pastors’ fifth claim, the court observed: “[W]e may not inquire into the propriety of [the co-pastors’] involuntary termination. Once they were terminated from employment, the [church] could use any legal means to prevent them from gaining access to church property.” The court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court has authorized civil courts to resolve church property disputes by applying nondoctrinal “neutral principles of law.” However, it emphasized that the “neutral principles doctrine has never been extended to religious controversies in the areas of church government, order and discipline.” Accordingly, it had no application in a case involving pastoral termination. Salzgaber v. First Christian Church, 583 N.E.2d 1361 (Ohio App. 1991).

See Also: Termination

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