First Amendment Leaves Room for Employee Lawsuits

D.C. court of appeal rules religious freedom doesn’t bar a pastor from suing for unpaid compensation.

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 District of Columbia court of appeals ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom did not bar a pastor from suing her church for payment of the compensation the church had agreed to pay.

In 2004, a minister (the "plaintiff") was employed by a church through the first in a series of one-year contracts. When she became pastor, the church had low enrollment, it had defaulted on its second mortgage, and it had been in default for two years. The plaintiff managed to refinance the mortgage and obtained $79,000 from the refinancing.

The church paid the plaintiff in yearly contracts during her first three years as pastor. However, because of the church's financial difficulties, in her fourth year, she agreed to receive her salary and housing allowance on a payment plan, rather than in the amounts and on the schedule previously agreed upon. She received payments in accordance with the payment plan until April 2008. She did not receive any payment for her services in 2009.

The plaintiff sued the church, claiming that it owed her $39,200 under terms of the contract covering her final year of services at the church. After hearing all the evidence, the trial court concluded that the pastor had "established by a preponderance of the evidence that this is a straightforward contract case, uncomplicated by ecclesiastical considerations." The church appealed, claiming that the dispute was an ecclesiastical matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction.

The appeals court began its opinion by acknowledging that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom "requires civil courts to defer to the decisions of the highest tribunals of hierarchical religious organizations on matters of religious doctrine, discipline, faith, and ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law." Further, the First Amendment "precludes civil courts from interfering with a religious organization's right to choose its ministers."

However, "civil court review of church action is not entirely prohibited." It continued: "The touchstone for determining whether civil courts have jurisdiction is whether the courts may employ neutral principles of law and ensure that their decisions are not premised on the consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith." The court concluded that the First Amendment did not bar the civil courts from resolving the plaintiff's breach of contract claim:

In this case, we are satisfied that the First Amendment does not bar [the plaintiff] from pursuing her contract claim against the church. The record does not suggest that resolving her contract claim will require the court to entangle itself in church doctrine. Rather, the record shows that she entered into a year-long contract to serve as pastor of the church, that she completed her obligations under the contract, and that the church did not honor its promise to pay her. Consequently, the trial court should be able to resolve the claim by employing neutral principles of law.

The plaintiff does not challenge the church's authority to hire, to fire, or to assign her duties, and she does not seek reinstatement. In other words, she does not seek to "limit the church's choice of its religious representatives," and we decline to extend the "ministerial exception" to categorically bar any claim whatsoever by a ministerial employee … . [Her] contract claim stands alone … . She does not claim she was wrongfully terminated or otherwise tether her contract claim to matters of church doctrine or governance; she claims only that the church failed to pay her salary after acknowledging its obligation to do so … . She has demonstrated that the trial court can resolve her claim without delving into matters reserved for ecclesiastical judgment.

The court cautioned that "if it becomes apparent to the trial court that this dispute does in fact turn on matters of doctrinal interpretation or church governance, the trial court may grant summary judgment to avoid excessive entanglement with religion."

What this means for churches

This case demonstrates that not all employment disputes between churches and clergy are barred by the so-called "ministerial exception." Some courts, like this one, are willing to resolve such disputes if they can do so without delving into "matters of doctrinal interpretation or church governance." Second Episcopal Dist. African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Prioleau, 49 A.3d 812 (D.C. 2012).

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