Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
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.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented the civil courts from resolving a pastor’s claim that his church acted unlawfully in voting to dismiss him. A church placed its pastor on paid administrative leave after he was accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a minor. When the church members decided to vote on whether to retain him as pastor, he filed a lawsuit opposing the vote. The pastor claimed any action taken outside a “properly called business meeting” would be invalid, and he claimed the upcoming meeting was not properly called because “(1) there had been no certification of the list of members in good standing who would be entitled to vote”; (2) absent such certification, adequate notice to eligible members could not be accomplished; and (3) the state denominational guidelines had not been followed because “there had been no attempts at conciliation or other notice given to the pastor as required.” The pastor further alleged he would be “irreparably harmed” if he was “voted out as pastor,” in that his reputation would suffer, he would lose his income, and he would suffer emotionally.
The court issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the vote, but the church voted anyway and dismissed the pastor by a majority vote of the 400 members in attendance. The court vacated the vote and ordered the church to conduct another vote, this time with certain court-ordered procedures regarding notice, eligibility, vote-counting, and security. Before setting out the specific guidelines for how the new vote should take place, the trial court noted that the church had
adopted a Constitution and Bylaws and a Handbook of Church Ministries Policies and Procedures. This court has thoroughly and carefully reviewed each of these documents. After such review, this court can unequivocally find that [the church] lacks the adopted procedures for determining church members eligible for voting, notification proceedings necessary for establishing a voting meeting, procedures for conducting a vote with regard to the discharge or retention of a pastor, and procedures for the determining [of] the proper number of votes necessary to discharge or retain a pastor.
Furthermore, despite the court’s hesitation to get involved in “ecclesiastical matters,” it determined that it “must intervene in an effort to restore peace to the congregation and to prevent further deterioration of a church congregation.”
The court relied on a previous ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court for the proposition that “where a congregational church lacks the established procedures for electing its leaders, a court may decide on a proper procedure.” The court then laid out procedures for the new vote, including voter eligibility and notice requirements. But before the meeting took place, the church filed an emergency appeal with a state appeals court. Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church v. Wallace, 835 So.2d 67 (Miss. 2003).
The appeals court ruled it lacked jurisdiction to resolve the lawsuit. It observed: “[The pastor] cannot prevail on the merits, because the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment places ministerial church-employment decisions beyond the reach of courts. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012).” In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Supreme Court recounted religious freedom from the Magna Carta to the Puritans escaping religious persecution and state control in England, to colonial parishioners at odds with church leadership based in England, and ultimately to the ratification of the First Amendment. That amendment bears directly on ecclesiastical decisions such as choosing ministers:
By forbidding the “establishment of religion” and guaranteeing the “free exercise thereof,” the Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government—unlike the English Crown—would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices. The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own … . The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes on the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.
The Mississippi court noted that the pastor in the present case “did not even claim that the church had terminated him in violation of any discrimination law or any other law. Rather, he argued that the church should not have been able to terminate him in the manner it chose. The law is clear that courts cannot constitutionally pass on that issue, and the trial judge therefore erred when he entered the restraining order initially, as well as when he vacated the church’s vote and ordered a new one.”
The court concluded: “Here, we are not faced with two factions of a church fighting over money and property and arguing about whether the bylaws have been followed. Rather, we are faced only with an aggrieved pastor who is unhappy that his church voted to terminate him … . The court’s jurisdiction is limited to purely secular issues, and the court must not be involved in ecclesiastical issues. In sum, we find that the trial court erred when he treated this ecclesiastical controversy as a secular one—a pastor who is unhappy about being terminated by a church simply does not present a secular controversy. As such, the trial court had no authority to issue the injunction or to vacate the church’s vote and order a new one, as the pastor cannot prevail on the merits of his claim.”
What This Means For Churches:
This case illustrates the breadth of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case. This case closes the door to attempts by dismissed clergy to enlist the civil courts in challenging the validity of their dismissals, even based on “secular” arguments such as a church’s noncompliance with its governing documents. Greater Fairview Missionary Church v. Hollins, 160 So.3d 223 (Miss. 2015).