Nuns Can Take Dismissal Suit Against Catholic University to Court

Court: Nuns were not acting as ministers in jobs.

Church Law and Tax1993-05-01Recent Developments

Employment Practices

Key point: In some states, a religious organization’s decision to dismiss an employee may be subject to civil court review if the employee performed no “ministerial functions” and the employment contract did not expressly incorporate religious doctrine or designate a tribunal or procedure for resolving disputes.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that two nuns who were dismissed by a Catholic university were entitled to challenge the legality of their dismissals in civil court. The nuns were employed to teach computer science. Their contracts of employment were no different than the contracts for lay teachers. The university decided to dismiss the nuns as teachers on account of their lack of proper qualifications and their “disruptive” influence on campus. The nuns challenged their dismissal in court. A trial court ruled in favor of the nuns, and awarded them $45,000 each for breach of contract. A state appeals court reversed this judgment, and the case was appealed to the state supreme court which reinstated the trial court’s verdict. The court began its opinion by acknowledging that when an internal dispute within a religious organization “turns on doctrine or polity” the civil courts must “abdicate their duty to enforce secular rights.” On this basis, “if an employee’s responsibilities transform the employee into a liaison between the religion and its adherents or if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship, the first amendment precludes judicial resolution of the dispute.” The court continued:

Cases in both the federal system and our own courts indicate that when an employee engages in “ministerial functions” for the employer, courts may not exercise jurisdiction over a suit to enforce the employment agreement. Those cases rely on the sound proposition that to interfere with a religious employer’s choices regarding who may propagate the faith or who may train others to do so is to entangle the judiciary impermissibly in mattes of polity. We agree that an employee’s function under the employment relationship rather than whether the employee holds ecclesiastical office determines whether the court should abstain from entertaining the dispute. . . . We can conceive of no greater incursion into the exercise of religion than a limitation on the factors an institution may consider in deciding whether to hire or terminate an employee who is charged with propagating the religion or is functioning as an intermediary between the religious institution and its adherents. That danger persists even in cases in which the alleged breach of the employment contract resulted from entirely non-doctrinal considerations, because when the employee fulfills a ministerial function for the employer, intrusion into the employment relationship directly affects the religion’s formal doctrine. If the state may choose, or even limit the religious employer’s options in choosing, those to whom it will entrust the propagation of the faith, the state effectively dictates the course of the religion.

The court insisted that the civil courts are free to review the dismissals (by religious organizations) of employees who either are not ministers or who are ministers but who do not perform ministerial functions. The court concluded that the nuns in this case, while clerics, did not perform any ministerial functions: “The record in this case contains no indication that the [nuns] counselled students at any time regarding spiritual or moral matters, or that the position of computer-science professor entailed instillation of religious values in students. Nor does the . . . religious background of the [university] student body give rise to an inference that the [nuns’] daily responsibilities included imbuing with Roman Catholic values those students who were enrolled in the computer-sciences program, students who were using equipment in the computer laboratory, or the general student population. In no sense did [the nuns] function as conduits between [the university] or the Roman Catholic Church and the faithful.” The court added that religious organizations “are free to bargain away” the right to discipline clergy (performing ministerial functions) free from civil court interference. This can be done by language of “waiver” in an employment handbook or contract. Similarly, an employee and a religious organization can agree that the employment relationship incorporates and is subject to religious doctrine and authority, or that any disputes will be resolved by a designated ecclesiastical body or procedure.

What is the significance of this case? Consider the following points.

First, the case represents a strong endorsement of the view that the civil courts have no jurisdiction to review the decisions of religious organizations to dismiss clergy who perform ministerial functions.” This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the case.

Second, and deeply troubling, is the court’s conclusion that the relationship between religious organizations and employees performing few if any ministerial functions is subject to civil court review. There are several problems with this position. How many “ministerial” duties will suffice to remove an employee from civil court protection? What if a lay person performs ministerial functions? Can such a person appeal to the civil courts? And, most importantly, how will the civil courts determine whether or not a particular employee is performing ministerial functions? Obviously, this is a question that often will involve heated disagreement. Many churches would consider the church secretary to be a religious position involving “ministerial” functions. Is a civil court free to disregard this understanding? In commenting on the virtual impossibility if not impropriety of civil courts making such a decision, the United States Supreme Court observed in 1987 that “it is a significant burden on a religious organization to require it, on pain of substantial liability, to predict which of its activities a secular court will consider religious. The line is hardly a bright one, and an organization might understandably be concerned that a judge would not understand its religious tenets and sense of mission.” Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327 (1987).

Third, the court suggested two ways for religious organizations to keep civil courts from reviewing the dismissal of clergy not performing ministerial functions: (1) Insert a provision in an employment contract subjecting the employment relationship to church doctrine and authority. While the court did not clarify what it meant by this exception, presumably it was suggesting that a religious employer can insert a clause in an employment contract specifying that the employee is deemed to be performing religious functions and is subject to ecclesiastical rather than civil authority with respect to any disputes. (2) Insert a provision in an employment contract specifying that any dispute between the employer and employee will be resolved through established church procedures (such as mediation or arbitration) or by a designated church tribunal.

Finally, note that the court also cautioned that churches can limit or waive their right to dismiss clergy by the language set forth in employment contracts or handbooks. That is, these documents can (intentionally or unintentionally) permit civil court review of clergy dismissals. Welter v. Seton Hall University, 608 A.2d 206 (N.J. 1992).

See Also: Termination | Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes

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