Key point 2-04.2. Some courts are willing to resolve disputes over the termination of clergy if they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.
A Connecticut court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a pastor’s claim that his employing church’s decision to dismiss him was invalid, since it could resolve the claim on the basis of neutral principles without any inquiry into church doctrine. A church officer issued a “notice of call” that called a special meeting of the congregation on a specified date. The notice stated that the purpose of the meeting was to vote on several issues, including whether the church should remain an active congregation and whether to reduce the pastor to part-time status. During the meeting, the moderator asked the pastor to leave the meeting as they were going to discuss his employment. A member then moved to terminate the pastor’s contract and to authorize the church council to hire an interim pastor and to search for a part-time pastor. A vote was taken, and 27 voted in favor of the motion, 10 voted against it and three abstained.
The pastor asked a court for a “declaratory judgment” that the church meeting was in violation of the church’s bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order, and that would reinstate him as pastor. The pastor claimed that the congregational meeting was defective in the following respects:
- The meeting improperly conducted business outside the “notice of call” in violation of the church’s bylaws. Specifically, the meeting was not called to terminate the pastor’s employment.
- The motion to terminate his employment was in violation of the bylaws since he was improperly barred from participating in the meeting as a member of the congregation.
- The vote on the motion did not pass by the two-thirds majority required by the bylaws because the pastor was improperly barred from the proceedings and had he been permitted to vote, he would have voted against the motion or would have abstained, thereby rendering the total number of votes less than the two-thirds majority needed to pass the motion.
- The party who seconded the motion to bring to a vote the termination of the pastor’s contract was not a church member, and Roberts’ Rules of Order provides that only members may make or second motions.
The church filed a motion to dismiss the pastor’s complaint. It asserted that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom protects the right of religious institutions to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and church governance without interference from any governmental agency, including the courts, and that a minister’s employment relationship with his or her church implicates internal church discipline, faith, and polity, all of which are governed by ecclesiastical custom and law. As a result, the church said, the courts lack jurisdiction over employment disputes such as the one involved in this case.
The pastor insisted that, despite the fact that he was employed as the church’s minister, he was not asking the court to apply ecclesiastical rules or religious doctrine, or determine “who will preach from the pulpit.” Instead, he was asking the court to apply secular law to the actions of the church to determine if it acted within its authority to terminate his employment. The pastor conceded that if the church terminated his employment based on an alleged “qualitative deficiency” or even for no reason at all, the court would lack jurisdiction. However, the pastor claimed that the purported act of the church in terminating his employment was not authorized by a proper vote of the congregation and hence was a nullity.
The church countered that, notwithstanding the pastor’s procedural claims, the ministerial exception bars claims that a religious institution failed to follow its own procedures and bylaws in terminating a religious employee.
The court concluded:
The issues raised by the pastor’s complaint include: (1) whether the vote terminating his contract was taken at a meeting duly warned to consider that issue; (2) whether the motion to terminate his contract was properly seconded and, therefore, properly before the meeting; and (3) whether barring him from attendance at the meeting and preventing him from voting on the motion violated his rights as a member of the defendant non-stock corporation. The court finds that the resolution of these issues would not require the court to intrude upon the defendant’s exclusive right to decide matters pertaining to doctrine or its internal governance or organization. Resolution of these issues involve questions of corporation law and the application of Robert’s Rules of Order, not the application of religious doctrine or matters of governance outside the jurisdiction of the court. Under the neutral-principles approach … the court may analyze the defendant’s bylaws and constitution in resolving the dispute …. The court finds that it has jurisdiction to reach the merits of the pastor’s claims and to apply “the ordinary principles which govern voluntary associations” to resolve the dispute.
What This Means For Churches:
Most courts have refused to get involved in internal church disputes regarding the dismissal of ministers on the ground that any intervention would violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. However, some courts have ruled that the First Amendment does not preclude them from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers if they can do so on the basis of neutral principles, such as nondoctrinal language in a church’s governing documents. Despite the Connecticut court’s ruling, the recent decision by the United States Supreme Court affirming the ministerial exception may preclude such judicial forays into employment decisions involving ministers. The Supreme Court observed:
We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions. United Congregational Church, 2011 WL 5842378 (Conn. Super. 2012).