• Key pointThe Civil Rights Act of 1964 The civil courts have consistently ruled that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
A Washington court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a former church employee’s claim that he was forced to resign his position because the church required him to perform more work than was called for in his employment contract. A man (“Paul”) worked as “pastoral assistant for music” for a church from 1990 to 1993. When a new priest came to the church he decided to combine Paul’s position with another position, and added to Paul’s responsibilities in other ways. Paul resigned because he was unable to perform all of the assigned duties adequately. He later sued the church, claiming that the priest unilaterally increased his workload and changed his job duties in violation of the terms of his employment contract and without following the procedures in the personnel manual of the archdiocese. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Paul appealed.
A state appeals court ruled that the first amendment religion clauses prevented it from resolving Paul’s claims. It observed,
Controversies touching the relationship between a church and its minister are normally avoided by secular courts because the “introduction of government standards to the selection of spiritual leaders would significantly, and perniciously, rearrange the relationship between church and state.” Because the minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose, matters touching upon the minister’s salary, place of assignment, and duties to be performed are not reviewable by a secular court. Significantly to the present case, this principle applies not just to ordained clergy, but to all employees of a religious institution whose primary functions serve the church’s spiritual and pastoral mission. Secular courts will, however, hear contract and employment cases arising from a church controversy when no ecclesiastical or doctrinal issues are involved. Because the frontier between church doctrine and civil contract law is a sensitive area, a court must determine whether the specific facts of the case present a threat of religious liberty.
Paul insisted that the court could resolve his claims without becoming involved in religious doctrine since it would only have to decide if the church required him to perform tasks beyond what were required in his employment contract. The court disagreed:
The job description provides generally that Paul’s job was to plan, implement, and evaluate all aspects of the liturgical life of the parish and to provide for the “spiritual needs of [the church].” This describes a job whose primary functions serve the church’s spiritual and pastoral mission. A court would necessarily have to determine what duties would further the spiritual needs of the parish in the areas of liturgy and music before the court could determine whether the alleged tasks that [the church] required of Paul went above and beyond his agreed upon responsibilities and rendered his workload unreasonable. This would require an evaluation of religious scripture, doctrine, and principles. It is precisely the type of searching inquiry that is prohibited by the first amendment. In sum, Paul cannot prove his claims in a secular court without having the court entangle itself in matters of church doctrine and practice. His complaint was properly dismissed on summary judgment for lack of jurisdiction.
Application. This ruling is another example of the refusal by the civil courts to resolve employment disputes brought by ministers or lay church employees who perform ministerial duties. Gates v. Seattle Archdiocese, 10 P.3d 435 (Wash. App. 2000).
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