Key Point 2-04.1 Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
A Washington state appeals court ruled that the First Amendment prevented it from resolving a claim of wrongful termination by the former director of evangelization of a diocese. A Catholic diocese hired a man (“Bruce”) as director of evangelization. Bruce’s job description defined his duties to include the development and implementation of “evangelization adult formation programs in Christian discipleship, Scripture, the Catholic Faith as summarized in the Creed, Sacraments, Liturgy, Morality, Spirituality, Evangelization and Social Justice with the goal of preparing every Catholic for ministry in the Church and mission in society.” Bruce helped compile a handbook for the Deacon Formation Program and guidelines for the Parish Pastoral and Finance Councils. In this bishop’s opinion, Bruce’s job “was directly related to the teaching of the Catholic Faith and doctrine.”
The diocese discovered pictures on a priest’s computer of naked adolescent boys on a beach. When confronted, the priest attempted suicide. In response, the diocese sent him to a psychiatric facility. The computer was turned over to state and federal prosecutors, but no charges were filed. The priest returned to the diocese and was assigned to a church that operated a parochial school. Bruce disagreed with the handling of the situation, and expressed his dissatisfaction in writing. Thereafter, his duties were cut back to the point that he was forced to resign. He later sued the diocese for retaliatory discharge.
A trial court dismissed Bruce’s lawsuit, and the case was appealed. A state appeals court ruled that the “ministerial exception” required it to affirm the dismissal of Bruce’s claims. The court, in explaining the ministerial exception, observed: “Secular courts must avoid controversies between a church and its minister because the introduction of government standards to the selection of spiritual leaders would significantly, and perniciously, rearrange the relationship between church and state. Moreover, an investigation and review of such matters of church administration and government as a minister’s salary, his place of assignment and his duty could only produce by its coercive effect the very opposite of that separation of church and state contemplated by the First Amendment.”
The court concluded that Bruce’s position was ministerial, though he was not ordained, and therefore the ministerial exception applied. It noted that “In determining whether an employee is considered a minister for the purposes of applying the ministerial exception, we do not look to ordination but instead to the function of the position,” and that the ministerial exception “encompasses all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary functions serve its spiritual and pastoral mission.” The court noted that the diocese hired Bruce as its director of evangelization, and that “evangelism by its very term means preaching the gospel.” Fontana v. Diocese of Yakima, 157 P.3d 443 (Wash. App. 2007).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, January/February 2008.