Ministers and Wrongful Dismissal

Court says minister cannot sue for dismissal.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01


Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, especially if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.

A Texas appeals court ruled that a dismissed minister could not sue his denomination for wrongful dismissal. A regional denominational agency charged a minister with immoral conduct. A few days before a scheduled ecclesiastical trial, the denominational agency dismissed the minister and revoked his ordination on the basis of his alleged efforts to intimidate and harass witnesses. The agency concluded that the minister had demonstrated “outrageous and blatant disregard for ethics and Christian principles.” The minister sued his former denomination, alleging that it had failed to follow its internal rules in dismissing him and accordingly he had been denied “ecclesiastical due process.” A trial court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to resolve an internal ecclesiastical dispute, and the minister appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court. The court noted that the denomination’s decision to dismiss the minister “was a purely ecclesiastical matter.” It quoted with approval from an earlier federal appeals court decision:

This case involves the fundamental question of who will preach from the pulpit of a church …. The bare statement of the question should make obvious the lack of jurisdiction of a civil court. That answer to that question must come from the church …. The people of the United States conveyed no power to Congress to vest its courts with jurisdiction to settle purely ecclesiastical disputes. Simpson v. Wells Lamont Corp., 494 F.2d 490 (5th Cir. 1974).

The Texas court continued: “Civil courts are barred from entertaining claims that ecclesiastical procedures were arbitrary and thus violated fundamental due process rights.” It quoted with approval from a 1976 ruling by the United States Supreme Court:

For civil courts to analyze whether the ecclesiastical actions of a church judicatory are in that sense arbitrary must inherently entail inquiry into the procedures that canon or ecclesiastical law supposedly require the church adjudicatory to follow, or else into the substantive criteria by which they are supposedly to decide the ecclesiastical question. But this is exactly the inquiry that the first amendment prohibits; recognition of such an exception would undermine the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 423 U.S. 696 (1976).

The court acknowledged that the Supreme Court “has left open the possibility that fraud or collusion claims may serve as vehicles for civil court review of ecclesiastical decisions, [the pastor in this case] has failed to establish egregious conduct on the part of [his denomination] that would trigger our review under such an exception.” The court concluded by noting that the minister had been dismissed for his “blatant disregard of ethics and Christian principle,” and that “a civil court cannot constitutionally intervene in this dispute because it is exactly the type of intervention the first amendment was designed to prevent.” Green v. United Pentecostal Church International, 899 S.W.2d 28 (Tex. App.—Austin 1995). [ Termination, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]

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