Pastor Sues Church for Discrimination and Defamation

Courts are prevented from applying employment laws to churches and ministers.

Church Law & Tax Report

Pastor Sues Church for Discrimination and Defamation

Courts are prevented from applying employment laws to churches and ministers.

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.

A federal court in Nebraska ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a minister’s discrimination and defamation claims against his church. A Catholic archdiocese assigned a priest (the “plaintiff”) to work as an assistant pastor at a church. Conflicts immediately arose between the plaintiff and the church’s senior pastor over several issues, including the manner in which the plaintiff performed religious liturgies, services, and teaching assignments; his availability for nightly parish activities, office hours, and other parishioner services; and his relationship with parish staff. The bishop ultimately transferred the plaintiff to another parish due to these continuing concerns. The plaintiff claimed that the senior pastor of the previous church had sexually harassed him, and, when he complained to his bishop about the behavior, the pastor retaliated against him by making false accusations and unfounded criticisms concerning his work performance. The bishop sent an email to members of the prior church stating that the plaintiff’s reassignment was due to “serious concerns.”

The plaintiff filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against the archdiocese, bishop, and former church (the “defendants”) claiming that their actions amounted to unlawful sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that the bishop’s email was defamatory. The EEOC dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, and the plaintiff took his case to federal court. The court, in dismissing the lawsuit, observed:

The evidence before the court … demonstrates that the archdiocese and [local parish] are religious institutions and [the plaintiff] was a clergyman assigned by the archdiocese to work at the parish, where his duties were of a religious and spiritual nature. Those facts are undisputed, and the court’s inquiry ends there. This court cannot review the archdiocese’s actions without giving rise to excessive government entanglement with religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The court stressed that the plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment, race and national origin discrimination, and retaliation, “are factually entwined and all relate to the adverse personnel actions which form the basis for his claims for damages and other relief.”

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the emails sent by the bishop to church members amounted to defamation. It noted that it had jurisdiction over this case because a federal statute (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) was involved. However, the court had jurisdiction over the defamation claim only because it was included with claims made under a federal statute. When the Title VII claims were dismissed, the “supplemental” jurisdiction the court had over the defamation claim ceased to exist, and this claim had to be dismissed. It concluded: “This court need not address … the merits of the defamation claim, however, because that claim was brought pursuant to the court’s supplemental jurisdiction. Courts may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a claim [if] the court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction.”

Application. This case is significant because it illustrates the limited jurisdiction that federal courts have over clergy discrimination claims. Often, such claims are made under Title VII, and several additional state law claims are included. However, federal courts limited by the Constitution to resolving cases involving a question under a federal law, or cases involving citizens from different states (in both kinds of cases, a specified amount of monetary damages must be sought). If a court dismisses a claim under a federal statute (such as Title VII) over which it has jurisdiction, it must also dismiss any state law claims over which it has no jurisdiction. Ogugua v. Archdiocese, 2008 WL 4717121 (D. Neb. 2008).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, November/December 2009.

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