Ministers and Wrongful Dismissal

Courts can intervene if there’s no need for inquiry into religious doctrine.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01


Key point. A small minority of courts are willing to review claims of wrongful dismissal by ministers if no inquiry into religious doctrine is required.

An Ohio court ruled that the civil courts have the authority to resolve a lawsuit by a dismissed minister claiming that his denomination was responsible for paying legal fees he incurred in suing the denomination and defending himself against criminal sexual misconduct charges. A bishop informed a pastor that two individuals had informed him that the pastor had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with them during separate counseling sessions. The pastor denied any wrongdoing, and the bishop insisted that he resign his pastoral call. The pastor refused to do so, and the bishop convened an advisory panel pursuant to the denominational constitution. The pastor retained an attorney, and insisted on bringing a court reporter to the advisory panel meeting. The bishop rejected this request and canceled the meeting. The bishop later informed the pastor that formal disciplinary proceedings would be initiated against him with the purpose of removing him from the list of ordained ministers. At this same time, two charges of criminal sexual misconduct were brought against the pastor. The pastor retained attorneys to represent him in the criminal proceedings. A few months later the pastor resigned. He was presented by his attorneys with a bill totalling $55,000 for interim professional services incurred in representing him in his dispute with the bishop and in the criminal cases. The pastor forwarded a copy of this bill to the bishop and requested payment in full. The bishop forwarded this request to denominational legal counsel who concluded that the denomination had no obligation to pay the pastor’s legal fees. The pastor then sued his denomination, demanding that it pay the legal fees. A trial court ruled that it was without jurisdiction to resolve what it perceived to be an internal ecclesiastical dispute, and the pastor appealed. A state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision, and ruled that the trial court did have the authority to resolve this controversy. The court acknowledged that the Constitution prohibits any inquiry by the courts into religious doctrine or practice and, thus, courts have no role in determining ecclesiastical questions in the process of resolving church disputes. On the other hand, there is no constitutional prohibition against the civil courts resolving church disputes on the basis of nondoctrinal principles. The court noted that the denomination’s constitution had provisions authorizing the payment of legal fees under limited circumstances, and that the trial court could determine whether these provisions required the denomination to pay the pastor’s legal fees. It observed:

If this court, or the trial court, were called upon to decide whether these two provisions were valid, or if we were asked to decide the merits of the action taken by [the denomination] against [the pastor], we would clearly be involved in the determination of ecclesiastical affairs of the church. However, where the dispute involves nondoctrinal contractual disputes, a civil court retains jurisdiction to hear the dispute. The indemnification clauses at issue in this case do not concern church doctrine, dogma or religious practice but, instead, pertain to the legal issue of whether or not [the pastor] is entitled to indemnification for attorney fees he incurred in administrative and criminal proceedings against him. Thus, the issue in the case at hand is secular in nature and one to which basic contractual, legal principles may be applied. Simply because the litigants include religious bodies does not necessarily make all issues ecclesiastical in nature. The trial court erred in determining that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. Bennett v. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 647 N.E.2d 566 (Ohio App. 1994). [ Termination]

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