Key point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
Key point 10-15. The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church’s liability for defamation.
A Texas court ruled that the “ministerial exception,” which bars civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and pastors, prevented it from resolving an associate pastor’s claim that he had been defamed by church leaders who accused him of producing and accessing pornography. A church’s associate pastor (the “plaintiff”) alleged that church officials sought his resignation because he revealed to them that the church had financial problems. In particular, he claimed that he informed church officials “that the church’s financial condition was deteriorating and that they might have to hold a membership meeting of the church to discuss the financial options available.” The plaintiff claimed that the lead pastor did not like this financial news because it “reflected on his ability to run the church and it prevented him from making an overseas trip using church funds.” According to the plaintiff, the lead pastor “began a campaign to solicit negative comments in the form of letters from various members to be used as a reason to embarrass him into resigning from his position.”
The plaintiff asserted that church leaders “falsely accused him of producing and disseminating pornography.” The allegedly false accusations were based on an e-mail that the plaintiff sent to the lead pastor in which he attached a proposed announcement to be made during an upcoming church service that depicted a couple lying in bed with the caption “Ignite Your Marriage at [our church]. Mattress not included.” The plaintiff insisted that the couple depicted in the image were fully clothed, and therefore the accusation of pornography was false and defamatory.
The plaintiff sued the lead pastor, and church for defamation, conspiracy, interference with contract and prospective contract, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He asked for injunctive relief and monetary damages. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiff appealed.
A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that “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.” The doctrine provides that “civil courts are to accept as final, and as binding on them the decisions of an ecclesiastical institution on such matters.”
The related “ministerial exception” refers to the application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in the employment context. It provides that “civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to decide cases concerning employment decisions by religious institutions concerning a member of the clergy or an employee in a ministerial position … . Although wrongs may exist in the ecclesiastical setting, and although the administration of the church may be inadequate to provide a remedy, the preservation of the free exercise of religion is deemed so important a principle that it overshadows the inequities that may result from its application.”
The court concluded that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and ministerial exception required the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against the lead pastor and church:
Each of his causes of action are based on [the church defendants] allegedly taking action against him for conduct that they viewed as inappropriate for an associate pastor. There was no evidence adduced that his reputation was harmed outside of the church community, nor was there evidence that the church defendants took any action outside the context of their deliberations regarding the plaintiff’s fitness for service as an associate pastor with the church. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that “the individual defendants did not publish the alleged defamatory statements to third parties outside of the church membership” and that “the substance and nature of his claims is to recover for an intangible injury to his reputation and for emotional distress allegedly caused by the church defendants’ statements and actions in connection with the employment dispute.” The evidence established that the actions underlying the plaintiff’s claims—specifically, the lead pastor’s assertions that the plaintiff distributed pornography—took place entirely within the context of church officials’ internal efforts to remove him from his position. Thus, trial on the plaintiff’s claims would require an analysis of “church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required.” The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine precludes subject matter jurisdiction over those causes of action.
What This Means For Churches:
This case demonstrates the important principle that the ministerial exception not only bars civil court review of wrongful dismissal claims by clergy, but also any claims collateral to adverse employment decisions including defamation, conspiracy, and emotional distress.
The case is also important because the court concluded that the ministerial exception required dismissal of the plaintiff’s interference with contract claim. Such a claim arises when one party shares information with an employer that leads to the termination of an employee. This basis of liability is sometimes asserted against churches and denominational agencies that share negative information about a minister that leads to the termination of his or her employment by another church. The plaintiff insisted that his interference with a prospective contract claim was based on an allegation that “he was removed from consideration for a job at another church” based on the false charge of using pornography. In rejecting this basis of liabliity, the court observed that “this allegation is also based on acts allegedly taken within the context of the church’s internal employment procedures. It is barred by the ministerial exception.” 399 S.W.3d 690 (Tex. App. 2013).