Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and non-establishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
* A Texas court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a lawsuit brought against a church by a dismissed youth director. Randy was employed as a church’s Director of Youth Ministries. In that position, he was responsible for “the administration and organizing of recreational events for the youth, such as camping outings and other social gatherings; he coordinated the transportation, oversaw the logistics, and served as a chaperone.” He also “managed the budget for the youth program, recruited adult and youth participants, registered the attendees at events, collected participation fees from attendees, and performed fundraising duties.”
Another associate pastor at Randy’s church had a conversation with a pastor of the church where Randy had previously been employed concerning Randy’s continued employment. The pastor of Randy’s former church recounted allegations that Randy had upset congregation members by dating certain women and by putting his arm around girls at church. He also described a rumor that Randy had used internet pornography as being “unsolicited, anecdotal, and unsubstantiated.”
After this conversation, the associate pastor at Randy’s church shared these rumors with another pastor who met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee (“SPRC”) and recommended that Randy be terminated from his position as Director of Youth Ministries. In a subsequent letter to two concerned members of the congregation, the SPRC chairwoman wrote: “Please know that this committee and your pastors share your concern for the youth program. A search for a new youth director will begin after the first of the year. Before any action was taken, the pastors discussed the situation with the District Superintendent and sought the backing of the SPRC, which unanimously voted to accept the recommendation to support the decision. I can assure you that we approached this decision prayerfully and in the best interests of the church.”
Randy claimed that the SPRC chairwoman told a member of the congregation who asked about his termination that, “It is really bad,” “We had to get him out before something happened at our church,” and that “Randy knows why he was fired” and “he wouldn’t want anyone else to know.”
Randy sued the church, claiming it was liable for defamation and interference with an employment contract. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on First Amendment grounds, and Randy appealed.
A state appeals court began its opinion by summarizing two important principles rooted in the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevents secular courts from reviewing many types of disputes that would require an analysis of “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required.” In cases relying on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, courts consider the substance and nature of a plaintiff’s claims to determine whether the First Amendment prevents civil court jurisdiction. The second, and more narrow, principle is the so-called ministerial exception which prevents the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between a church and its ministers. If the employee is a minister, then the ministerial exception applies, “preventing secular review of the employment decision without further question as to whether the claims are ecclesiastical in nature.” The reason for this special rule for employment decisions about ministers is because:
The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern …. [Inquiry into a church’s decision regarding the] employment relationship existing between a church and its minister would result in an encroachment by the state into an area of religious freedom which it is forbidden to enter by the principles of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.1972).
In summary, if Randy’s position was ministerial, “then, pursuant to the ministerial exception, his claims for defamation and interference are not subject to secular review.”
The court concluded that an employee’s position will be considered “ministerial” if his or her “primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship” or if the “position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.” In deciding if an employee’s primary duties are ministerial in nature, the court referred to the following three factors: (1) “whether employment decisions regarding the position at issue are made largely on religious criteria,” (2) “whether the plaintiff was qualified and authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church,” and (3) “probably most important whether plaintiff engaged in activities traditionally considered ecclesiastical or religious.” Starkman v. Evans, 198 F.3d 173 (5th Cir. 1999). The Starkman court held that it is “sufficient” to deem an employee’s function “ministerial” if only the third prong is satisfied (choir director was a minister because religious music “constitutes a form of prayer that is an integral part of worship”).
The court noted that Randy’s position as Director of Youth Ministries included many administrative duties, such as coordinating the transportation, logistics, and other travel arrangements for youth outings and gatherings. Also, the court pointed out that he was not ordained, and, as Director of Youth Ministries, did not participate in worship services or ceremonies, had no responsibility for the music or liturgy, did not assist with the confirmation of youth, and was not required to teach religious classes or have religious training. On the other hand, the court noted:
Randy was responsible for “organizing” these events, meaning that he made decisions on behalf of the church about what activities the members of its youth ministry would participate in. The purpose of a church organizing a youth-group retreat is to bring people together in fellowship, often coupled with religious worship or reflection. Even if he was not teaching the doctrine himself, he testified that he was actively participating as a chaperone. Organizing and chaperoning these events for the youth ministry are activities that furthered the church’s mission, which went beyond purely secular tasks such as booking a chartered bus, collecting payments from the participants, or reserving cabins for a retreat. Furthermore, he “managed the budget for the youth program.” Had he been responsible merely for accounting, this function might be viewed as solely secular because he would not have any discretion over the use of church funds. But, as the director of the program who “managed” the budget, he was authorized to decide how the church’s money was best used in furtherance of ministering to its youth. Because he was responsible for deciding what activities the church’s youth group would participate in and how the program’s money would be spent, he was “answerable to the religious authorities for providing, in a myriad of ways not reducible to a listing of tasks, ‘spiritual leadership in and for the [youth ministry].'”
Notably, Randy’s affidavit also states that he “performed fund-raising duties” and “recruited participants” for the program. There is no question that asking people to give their time and money to support activities of the youth ministry is a function that is “important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church,” especially in light of the fact that he was also responsible for deciding how to use that money and how to organize those events. In fulfilling these duties, he would be directly communicating the mission of the program to individuals and encouraging them to participate either financially or physically.
Thus … it is apparent that he was acting both as the “voice” of the youth ministry and serving as a “primary agent” of the church. Determining whose voice speaks for the church is per se a religious matter, and determining who will serve as a “primary agent by which a church seeks to fulfill its purpose” is precisely the type of ecclesiastical decision that the First Amendment intends to protect. Considering the Starkman “primary duties” test, then, (1) the church’s employment decision regarding Randy’s position would be based largely on religious criteria, and (2) his organizing of—as well as his budgeting, fund-raising, and recruiting participants for—youth ministry activities are things “traditionally considered [to serve an] ecclesiastical or religious” purpose. Accordingly we hold that, as Director of the Youth Ministry Randy functioned in a ministerial capacity.
The court rejected Randy’s argument that some of his defamation claims could be addressed because they were based on statements made about him by church officers after he was dismissed. In particular, the chairwoman of the SPRC allegedly told members that “it is really bad” and “we had to get him out before something happened at our church.” Although such statements “do not, on their face, implicate religious doctrine, a determination of the truth or falsity of these statements would require an inquiry into the church’s reasons for terminating Randy from his position as the Director of Youth Ministries,” and this is “precisely the type of inquiry protected from secular review by the ecclesiastic abstention doctrine.”
Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, it applies the ministerial exception to a youth pastor who was not ordained, and who “did not participate in worship services or ceremonies, had no responsibility for the music or liturgy, did not assist with the confirmation of youth, and was not required to teach religious classes or have religious training.” The court concluded that Randy was nonetheless a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception because (1) he was actively involved in organizing and chaperoning events for the youth ministry that furthered the church’s mission and “went beyond purely secular tasks”; (2) he was authorized to decide how the church’s money was best used in furtherance of ministering to its youth; (3) he performed fundraising duties and recruited participants for the youth program; (4) he acted both as the “voice” of the youth ministry and served as a “primary agent” of the church.
Second, the court concluded that the ministerial exception barred resolution of defamation claims arising from post-termination statements if “a determination of the truth or falsity of these statements would require an inquiry into the church’s reasons for terminating [the minister] from his position,” since this is “precisely the type of inquiry protected from secular review by the ecclesiastic abstention doctrine.” Patton v. Jones, 212 S.W.3d 541 (Tex. App. 2006).