A Florida state appeals court ruled that it was barred by the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” from resolving a dismissed church employee’s lawsuit against her former church.
A woman (the “plaintiff”) was hired as an office manager by a Catholic church.
Twelve years later, the church’s pastor and the plaintiff executed an employment agreement for the first time. The agreement, which purported to bind the church and local diocese, provided that the plaintiff would remain employed for four years, allowed termination only for cause, and required six months advance notice to avoid an automatic renewal.
Soon thereafter the local bishop appointed a new pastor for the church who promptly terminated the plaintiff’s employment without notice in violation of the employment agreement, allegedly due to a reduction in workforce.
Fired employee sues for breach of contract
Following her termination, the plaintiff sued the pastor, church, and diocese (the “church defendants”) for breach of her employment agreement. The lawsuit alleged that the former pastor had the exclusive authority to hire and fire anyone employed by the church, to enter into employment agreements with employees, and to operate and manage the church as he deemed appropriate.
The church defendants asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of the “church autonomy doctrine” that generally bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes involving matters of “discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law.” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 712-13 (1976).
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, noting that the main dispute was “not whether an employment contract was breached, but whether or not [the former pastor] had the . . . authority within his capacity as pastor of [the church] to enter into an employment contract with [the plaintiff].”
“The trial court determined that resolving this issue would require it to delve into the duties of a pastor and church organization and it therefore lacked . . . jurisdiction to hear the case,” the appeals court stated.
The court can’t “wade into ecclesiastical polity”
The plaintiff appealed.
The state appeals court began its ruling by noting:
[W]e now address whether the trial court erred in dismissing [the plaintiff’s] complaint. In doing so, our inquiry is whether this dispute is one of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law. If so, secular courts lack the authority to resolve the dispute. . . .
The court continued:
At the heart of the dispute between [the plaintiff] and the Church Defendants is whether [the former pastor] had the authority . . . to obligate successor administrations of [the church] to retain his chosen employees. Simply put [the plaintiff] has requested that a secular court examine a hierarchical religious organization and determine who has the authority to speak and act on its behalf. Whether based on actual or apparent authority [the plaintiff’s] request would require a court to impermissibly wade into ecclesiastical polity, in violation of the First Amendment.
Take [the plaintiff’s] claim that [the former pastor] had actual authority to form [the plaintiff’s] employment agreement. That claim would require an assessment of the interrelationship between the Diocese and [the church] and who within the Catholic church has the power and authority to control the operation of the parishes. Making that assessment, as [the plaintiff] recognizes, would require a court probe into religious Canon Law to discern the respective legal significance and authority of a pastor, a parish, and the Diocese. The risk of constitutional violation posed by this inquiry is evident: incorrectly identifying or describing the authority of a pastor as well as the scope of ordinary acts of administration would undermine the right of a religious organization to choose a structure that best propagates its message. But what is more, the United States Supreme Court has warned that the First Amendment may be violated not only by judicial decisions, but by the very inquiry that results in a court’s findings and conclusions of law.
[The plaintiff’s] claims based on apparent authority do not fare any better. Indeed, resolving this dispute based on a claim of apparent authority would require examining the history and operation of the Parish, scrutinizing the governance patterns of the Diocese, and applying secular conceptions of agency to church governance. This exercise too would permit a court to seize control of the church’s polity to the extent a religious organization’s structure and governance failed to conform with secular expectations (emphasis added).
The court concluded:
Whether [the former pastor] had the actual or apparent authority to form the employment agreement and bind [the church] and the Diocese . . . is a quintessentially religious controversy—one that would require judicial inquiry into internal church matters—and constitutes a subject matter of which secular courts lack jurisdiction. . . .
Because the dispute in this case is one regarding ecclesiastical polity, a secular court’s only legitimate role is ensuring the dispute is committed to religious authorities. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine bars consideration of [the plaintiff’s] claims, and the trial court appropriately dismissed her complaint (emphasis added).
What this means for churches
This case is important for the following reasons.
First, in explaining the church autonomy doctrine, the court noted that in cases involving disputes over polity and administration, the Supreme Court “has taken a more categorical approach, recognizing that secular courts may not interfere with matters of internal church governance or interpret a church’s written constitution or ecclesiastical law.”
As a result, any attempts by litigants to pursue legal claims against a church will fail for any claim that is based on an interpretation of a church’s governing documents, especially if the interpretation is contrary to the church’s understanding of its governing documents.
Second, the court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to base church liability on actual or apparent authority. If the former pastor had actual or apparent authority to execute the employment contract with the plaintiff, then the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim against the church might be viable.
This is a significant ruling regarding actual or apparent authority, which is also known as agency law. Churches and denominational agencies are often sued on the basis of agency for the behavior of volunteers and lay employees, and denominational agencies are often sued for the liabilities of affiliated churches.
Consider two examples:
- A church volunteer, while driving her vehicle on church business, is involved in a traffic accident with another vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle is seriously injured and sues the national denominational agency with which the church is affiliated, claiming that it is responsible for the volunteer’s negligence on the basis of agency.
- A youth pastor engages in a sexual relationship with an adolescent in a church. The adolescent files a lawsuit against regional and national denominational agencies with which the church is affiliated, claiming that they are vicariously liable for the youth pastor’s conduct on the basis of agency.
In both of these examples, the plaintiffs rely on their interpretation of the governing documents of the church and denominational agency to support their claims of liability. Again, such appeals by plaintiffs to seek court interpretation of the governing documents of religious organizations will be unsuccessful under the church autonomy doctrine.
Napolitano v. St. Joseph Catholic Church, 308 So.3d 274 (Fla. App. 2020).