Former Minister Sues Church for Wrongful Dismissal

Courts generally will not intervene in churches’ ministerial employment decisions.

Church Law and Tax 1997-09-01


Key point. It is the prevailing view that the civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, particularly if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters. Most courts have concluded that this prohibition on judicial intervention in clergy employment decisions extends to collateral claims, such as defamation.

A Minnesota court ruled that an assistant pastor who was dismissed by his employing church after the congregation voted to eliminate his position for financial reasons could not sue the church for breach of contract or defamation. An ordained minister was hired as assistant pastor by a local church in 1990, and was dismissed in 1992 after the congregation voted to eliminate his position. The church claimed that this action was taken for financial reasons. The dismissed pastor sued his church and synod, claiming that he was terminated in retaliation for reporting certain information about the church’s senior pastor. He claimed that the church and synod were liable on the following grounds: (1) interference with contract, (2) wrongful discharge, (3) defamation, (4) violation of the state “whistleblower statute,” and (5) negligent hiring and retention. The dismissed pastor’s contract claims were based on his “letter of call” and provisions of the church constitution regarding termination procedures. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the dismissed pastor appealed. A state appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case. The court began its opinion by observing that “the first amendment precludes civil courts from resolving disputes involving churches if a resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry by civil courts into religious law and polity.” The court acknowledged that it could resolve a church property dispute on the basis of “neutral principles of law,” but it concluded that this dispute did not involve church property. It rejected the former pastor’s claim that “a pastor’s breach of contract claim that does not necessarily entangle the court in matters of church doctrine would not be outside the court’s jurisdiction.” The court concluded that the former pastor’s breach of contract claim is “based on the letter of call and the church constitution. Resolution of these issues would require this court to interpret ecclesiastical documents regarding discipline, discharge, and proper expenditure of church funds and thus would be improper under the first amendment.”

The court also rejected the former pastor’s claim that he had been defamed. The lawsuit alleged that a bishop of the synod falsely stated that the former pastor (1) was “on leave without call”; (2) had “physically threatened” him; (3) was a “troublemaker”; and (4) was “pathological” and “obsessive—compulsive.” The former pastor further asserted that he had been warned by the bishop that he would not get another call unless he underwent counseling, and that the bishop called two other pastors and told them not to believe anything the former pastor said. The court concluded that such statements did not amount to defamation. It observed that “because these alleged defamatory statements relate to [the bishop’s] reasons and motives for making employment decisions, such an inquiry is barred by the first amendment.”

Application. This case illustrates the difficulty ministers encounter when they attempt to sue a former church for wrongful termination. Nearly every court that has addressed the issue in recent years has concluded that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom protects churches in making decisions regarding the tenure, status, and dismissal of ministers. Civil court meddling with such decisions would amount to an unconstitutional interference with religious freedom. Further, this case illustrates that the general rule of judicial non—intervention in clergy dismissal disputes extends to collateral claims such as defamation. Also note that the court refused to address the former pastor’s claim that he had been dismissed in retaliation for “raising questions” about the church’s senior pastor, and therefore his dismissal violated the state’s “whistleblower” statute. Olson v. Luther Memorial Church, 1996 WL 70102 (Minn. App. 1996). [ Termination, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes, The Free Exercise Clause]

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