Minister Sues Denomination Over Broken Promise

He claimed a bishop had promised to appoint him to a particular church.

Church Law and Tax 1994-03-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

Key point: The civil courts cannot resolve disputes over the appointment or removal of ministers if those disputes cannot be resolved without inquiring into doctrine and polity.

The Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a minister claiming that a denominational official broke a promise to appoint him to a particular church. A minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E. Church) filed a lawsuit claiming that his bishop failed to honor a promise to appoint him to a particular church. The minister claimed that when other ministers became aware that the bishop was going to appoint him as pastor of the church, they contacted the bishop and persuaded him not to follow through on his promise. The minister sued the other ministers for interfering with a contract, and the bishop for breaking his promise. A trial court ruled in favor of the minister, and awarded him $75,000. The case was appealed, and an appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision. The appeals court acknowledged that one commits interference with a contract relationship when the following four conditions are satisfied: (1) the existence of a valid contractual relationship or business expectancy; (2) knowledge of the contract or business expectancy on the part of the interfering party; (3) intentional interference causing a breach of the contract or expectancy; and (4) damage to the party whose contract or expectancy has been disrupted. The appeals court dismissed the interference with contract claim since the minister did not bring it in a county with proper venue. The court then addressed the remaining question of whether or not the minister could sue the bishop for breaking his promise. The court began its analysis by noting that “it is not unconstitutional for civil courts to resolve legal disputes involving a church or minister so long as the court is not required to interpret church doctrine to render a decision.” The minister claimed that he was asking a civil court to render a decision on the merits of his case without consulting A.M.E. doctrine or polity. The court concluded that a court could not resolve the minister’s claim against the bishop without consulting church doctrine:

It is true that the United States Supreme Court has said that if a dispute involving a church can be resolved without addressing ecclesiastical questions, the first amendment does not prohibit consideration by the civil courts. However, whenever a civil court must resort to the interpretation of church doctrine or polity, the Supreme Court has held that the civil court exercises its jurisdiction in violation of the first amendment ….

It is impossible to decide the [claim against the bishop] without inquiring in to A.M.E. Church doctrine and polity and drawing conclusions as to what those doctrines provide. In order to [prevail the minister] must prove reasonable reliance on the alleged promise of [the bishop] to appoint him to the pastorship of [the church]. This necessarily requires inquiry into A.M.E. Church doctrine and polity to determine whether it is reasonable to rely on the promise of an A.M.E. Church bishop that he is going to appoint one to a specific pastorship. This requires the court to determine whether church doctrine gives bishops authority to promise appointments. Such an inquiry is impermissible under the first amendment. Therefore … the claim is dismissed. Belin v. West, 864 S.W.2d 838 (Ark. 1993).

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