‘Ecclesiastical Abstention’ Fails to Prevent School Employee’s Discrimination Lawsuit

The “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” which bars the courts from resolving issues of internal church governance, did not prevent a church’s preschool director from suing the church for disability discrimination.

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 Kentucky appeals court ruled that the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” which bars the courts from resolving issues of internal church governance, did not prevent a church’s preschool director from suing the church for disability discrimination.

In 2000, a woman (the “plaintiff”) was named director of a preschool and daycare center operated by a church. In her role as director, the plaintiff oversaw operation of the center on a daily basis; she was responsible for purchasing food, classroom materials, and toys using an account set up specifically for the center and separate from the church’s operating accounts; and she managed the center’s employees, including all scheduling, discipline, training, and payroll tasks in accordance with the center’s employee handbook, which was written separately from any church directive or policy.

As a condition for receiving federal education funds, the center was prohibited from posting religious materials and artifacts in the classrooms. Throughout her tenure, the plaintiff had no association with the church, had no religious duties, and made no religious decisions of any kind.

Beginning in June of 2009, the plaintiff was supervised by the church’s newly appointed head pastor. The pastor did not attend functions, teach, or have any connection with the center apart from his supervisory role over the church. He indicated that the plaintiff ran the center “in isolation” from the church, did not have a religious education, was not a minister, did not teach the Methodist faith, and was not involved with the church’s governance or any church committee.

On December 31, 2009, the plaintiff’s husband passed away. The church permitted her to take an extended leave of absence to grieve for her husband. She struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety. When she returned to the center, she initially worked part-time, occasionally arriving late, leaving early, or missing whole days. The church continued paying her full-time salary. Between February and November 2010, the pastor and an associate pastor often spoke with the plaintiff regarding her absences, tardiness, and other issues stemming from her depression and anxiety. No disciplinary actions were instituted or documented.

On November 9, 2010, the pastor summoned the plaintiff to a meeting regarding an injury sustained by one of the center’s students the previous day. Following the meeting, the plaintiff was placed on suspension. This was the first adverse employment action against the plaintiff in her 20 years with the center. On November 15, 2010, the pastor signed a letter on behalf of the church terminating the plaintiff’s employment. As reasons for her firing, the church alleged the plaintiff had forced children to go through a drain pipe resulting in injury to a child, frequently yelling at the children, physically grabbing and poking the children, and leaving the children unsupervised. Believing these allegations were demonstrably false and merely pretexts for her dismissal, on January 25, 2011, the plaintiff sued the church, alleging disability discrimination in violation of state law. At trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her damages for lost wages and emotional distress. In addition, the plaintiff’s motion for attorney’s fees was granted.

The church appealed the decision on two grounds. First, it claimed the trial court erred in not dismissing the case on the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which generally bars the civil courts from interfering with internal church disputes pertaining to issues of faith, polity, and doctrine. And second, it claimed the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the case on the basis of the church’s discovery following the plaintiff’s termination of misconduct that would have warranted her termination had it been known.

The appellate court ruled that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not require a dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit:

That a church is a party to a suit does not immediately deprive our courts of the ability to adjudicate the dispute. The mere inclusion of a religious organization as a party to a suit does not necessarily implicate the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine. Secular courts are not prohibited from hearing cases involving religious organizations where the dispute can be resolved by the application of neutral principles of secular law. We reiterate that the intent of ecclesiastical abstention is not to render civil and property rights unenforceable in the civil court simply because the parties involved might be the church and members, officers, or the ministry of the church.

The court noted that the related “ministerial exception” applies to “employment claims—especially discrimination claims—asserted against a religious institutional employer by an employee who is directly involved in promulgating and espousing the tenets of the employer’s faith.”

The court concluded that neither doctrine applied to this case:

[This] case involves nothing more than an employment termination dispute which can be easily and fully resolved by resort to neutral principles of secular law. No internal church governance is at issue. Further, as previously stated, the church utterly failed to present an adequate basis upon which the trial court could rely to rule in its favor. Even today, no evidence exists that the daycare center was a religious institution nor that the plaintiff was involved in promulgating and espousing the tenets of the employer’s faith. In fact, the proof is just the opposite—the two entities were separate. The church’s tardy attempt to support its position is unavailing. Timing is everything, and the church has been late to the ball since it first received the invitation. We will not accept the request to save it from its own mistakes. The trial court did not err in denying the motion to dismiss.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates what many courts call the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine. Under this doctrine the civil courts are barred by the First Amendment religion clauses from resolving most internal church disputes. While not using the terminology “ecclesiastical abstention,” the United States Supreme Court described the basic principle in a 1976 ruling in which it noted that the civil courts lack jurisdiction over internal church disputes that are “strictly and purely ecclesiastical in [their] character … a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.” Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

As this case demonstrates, the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine does not preclude civil courts from resolving all internal church disputes. While the courts may not exercise jurisdiction “over matters concerning theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them,” many courts have ruled that they can resolve internal church disputes so long as no inquiry into church doctrine is involved. United Methodist Church v. the plaintiff, 2018 WL 480532 (Ky. App. 2018).

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