Non-Ministers and Wrongful Termination Claims

A former church employee’s job and duties did not trigger the ministerial exception, and a resolution of her wrongful discharge claim did not require the court to delve into religious doctrine.

Church Law & Tax Report

Non-Ministers and Wrongful Termination Claims

A former church employee’s job and duties did not trigger the ministerial exception, and a resolution of her wrongful discharge claim did not require the court to delve into religious doctrine.

Key point 8-04. In most states, employees who are hired for an indefinite period are considered “at will” employees. This means that the employment relationship may be terminated at will by either the employer or employee, with or without cause, and with or without notice. The courts and state legislatures have created a number of exceptions to the at will employment rule. These exceptions limit the right of an employer to terminate an at will employee. Employees who are hired for a specific term are not at will employees, and they may be terminated only if the employer has “good cause.”

* A federal court in Washington ruled that the First Amendment did not prevent it from resolving a dismissed lay employee’s claim of wrongful termination against her former church. The parties in this case were the same as in the previous case. In this case, Beth sued her church and denominational agencies (the “church defendants”) for wrongful termination rather than sexual harassment discrimination under Title VII. She asserted that the church’s termination of her employment based on her accusations of sexual harassment against the senior pastor violated a “public policy against sex discrimination.”

The court noted that “there is no dispute that Beth was subjected to unwelcome and persistent sexual advances from [the senior pastor] contrary to Washington’s strong public policy against such behavior.” After she complained to the pastor about his conduct, he informed her that she would have to resign. The church’s associate pastor, also a member of the board, confirmed this decision. Beth later communicated to the other members of the church board the severity and frequency of the pastor’s misconduct. Nonetheless, the board did not question the pastors’ decision to terminate her.

The church claimed that questioning its justification for Beth’s termination would intrude upon its First Amendment right to the free exercise of its religion. The court acknowledged that the First Amendment “precludes claims that would require a jury to evaluate religious doctrine or the reasonableness of the religious practices followed [by a religious organization].” However, this principle “does not provide churches with absolute immunity to engage in [wrongful] conduct. So long as liability is predicated on secular conduct and does not involve the interpretation of church doctrine or religious beliefs, it does not offend constitutional principles.”

The court concluded that Beth’s wrongful discharge claim “turns on secular conduct because it, unlike her negligent supervision or sexual harassment claims, concerns a single decision by her employer: the only relevant decision that [the court] can reasonably attribute to [the church] is the decision by the pastors, unchallenged by the [other board members] to terminate Beth after she complained about the pastor’s harassing conduct.”

The court stressed that Beth was employed in an administrative role in which her “primary functions [did not] serve the church’s spiritual and pastoral mission,” and therefore she was not covered by the so-called ministerial exception (which generally prevents the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers).

The church also argued that Beth’s termination was “inextricably intertwined” with church discipline, deference to the senior pastor, and protection of the pastoral relation. The court disagreed. Although the senior pastor was disciplined and ultimately deposed, these developments were not relevant in assessing Beth’s claims. The court noted that “sexual harassment claims involving religious institutions often require analysis of a minister’s interactions, appropriate or otherwise, with members of his congregation. This necessity does not bring such cases within the ministerial exception: the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom cannot be construed to protect secular beliefs and behavior, even when they comprise part of an otherwise religious relationship between a minister and a member of his or her congregation. To hold otherwise would impermissibly place a religious leader in a preferred position in our society.”

The church also claimed that it was guided in its actions towards Beth by the church’s doctrine of discipline. The court acknowledged that “the propriety of her own conduct with respect to [the senior pastor] was a subject of the board’s inquiry. But a credibility dispute between accuser and accused is no different than might face any other secular employer investigating workplace sexual harassment. The board may well have had questions about Beth’s religious or moral transgressions, but the wrongfulness of her termination from a secular administrative position after reporting sexual harassment need not rest on questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law ….”

The court concluded that the church’s attempt to inject doctrine in this lawsuit “does not of itself transform Beth’s wrongful-discharge claim into an ecclesiastical dispute. Nor would it preclude a jury from finding that [the church] lacked an overriding justification for her discharge.”

Application. As noted in the previous case summarized in this newsletter, Beth’s sexual harassment claim under Title VII was dismissed by a federal appeals court. However, as this case demonstrates, this did not prevent her from pursuing other claims against the church. In this case, the court rejected the church’s motion to dismiss her wrongful discharge claim. It concluded that Beth’s job and duties did not trigger the ministerial exception, and a resolution of her wrongful discharge claim would not require the court to delve into religious doctrine in violation of the First Amendment. Macdonald v. Grace Church Seattle, 2006 WL 2252866 (W.D. Wash. 2006).

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