• Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, especially if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.
• 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 Arizona court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a dispute between a church and a priest concerning the termination of the priest’s employment, but it could enforce a church’s judgment authorizing an award of damages to the priest if it could do so without becoming “entangled” in church doctrine. An Orthodox priest in Yugoslavia emigrated to the United States to escape persecution. A bishop appointed him as priest of a local church. Under the constitution of the diocese, the bishop appoints and removes priests. However, the president of the local congregation terminated the priest’s employment with the church and ordered him to vacate the church parsonage. When the priest and his wife refused to move, the church had the police remove them from the property. An “ecclesiastical court” of the diocese determined that the church had not observed the diocese’s constitution in removing the priest. It ordered the church to pay the priest the amount of money it owed him from the date of his illegal termination. When the church failed to pay the priest the amount mandated by the ecclesiastical court, the priest filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the church wrongfully breached his employment contract and failed to implement the decision of the ecclesiastical court. The priest also claimed that the church wrongfully cut off his utilities in an attempt to force him out of the parsonage, and did not return to him all of the personal belongings that he left in the parsonage.
Breach of Employment Contract
A state appeals court ruled that the first amendment prevented it from resolving the priest’s breach of contract claim:
The first amendment guarantees that both individuals and churches have the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94 (1952) …. The interaction between a church and its pastor is an essential part of church government. In particular, “a minister’s employment relationship with his church implicates internal church discipline, faith, and organization, all of which are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law.” Lewis v. Seventh Day Adventists Lake Region Conference., 978 F.2d 940 (6th Cir.1992). Thus, civil courts must abstain from deciding ministerial employment disputes or reviewing decisions of religious judicatory bodies concerning the employment of clergy, because such state intervention would excessively inhibit religious liberty. Accordingly, “secular courts will not attempt to right wrongs related to the hiring, firing, discipline or administration of clergy.” Higgins v. Maher, 258 Cal. Rptr. 757 (1989). The first amendment prohibits civil adjudication of [the priest’s] breach of contract claim because his claim challenges church decisions involving the hiring and firing of its clergy. Review of [the] contract claims would have involved the trial court in matters of “internal church discipline, faith, and organization.” Thus, the trial court correctly dismissed these contract claims.
Wrongful termination of utilities, failure to return personal property
The court also concluded that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving the priest’s claims that his utilities had been improperly cut off, and that the church had failed to return all the personal belongings he had left in the parsonage. It ruled that these claims were “too intimately connected with matters of church discipline to allow civil review”; were “too close to the peculiarly religious aspects of the transaction to be segregated and treated separately as simple civil wrongs”; and arose as “inseparable parts of a process of divestiture of priestly authority.” The court concluded: “[T]the alleged actions of cutting off the … utilities and taking [the] belongings were inseparable parts of the process of divesting [the priest] of his priestly authority. While the alleged acts may have been improper, they occurred as [the church] attempted to remove the [priest and his] belongings from the church premises after the church terminated [the priest].”
Enforcing the decision of the ecclesiastical court
The court concluded that the first amendment did not prohibit it from enforcing the decision of the ecclesiastical court. It noted that “because churches, including their local congregations and hierarchy, exist and function within the civil community, they are as amenable as other societal entities to rules governing property rights, torts and criminal conduct.” The court further observed:
When civil or property rights are involved, courts may entertain disputes within religious organizations even if some ecclesiastical matters are incidentally involved. Such disputes, however, cannot be heard by a civil court if the court must resolve underlying controversies over religious doctrine and practice in order to decide the case. Setting the amount of [the priest’s] damages in conformity with the ecclesiastical decision would not constitute a review of that decision, nor would it involve deciding issues of ecclesiastical doctrine or belief. The doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention does not apply where the dispute can be resolved without inquiry into religious law or polity. The court may decide the dispute if the methods of resolution avoid entanglement in questions of ecclesiastical doctrine or belief.
The court noted that the ecclesiastical court had determined that the priest was entitled to salary and benefits from the time the church terminated his employment. A determination of this amount “would only involve computation of [his] salary and the value of his housing, utilities, benefits and unpaid vacation time.” The fact that the court might have to examine church documents “concerning what compensation was promised and previously paid … would not preclude this inquiry,” since a court may “interpret provisions of religious documents involving property rights and other nondoctrinal matters as long as the analysis can be done in purely secular terms.” The court concluded that “analyzing church records to determine the amount of salary and benefits … could be done in purely secular terms, particularly where the ecclesiastical court already specified the period of time for which payment should be made.”
Application. This case confirms the general rule that the civil courts cannot resolve disputes involving the employment of clergy. The court extended this prohibition to collateral disputes arising from a decision to terminate a minister’s employment, since such matters are inseparable from the underlying dispute. The court did recognize a limited exception to these rules. A civil court may resolve contract or property claims by clergy if two conditions are met: (1) the contract or property claim is not inseparably linked to the church’s decision to divest the minister of his or her position or authority; and (2) the contract or property claim can be resolved by the civil court without reference to church doctrine (a limited review of church documents is permitted). Dobrota v. Free Serbian Orthodox Church, 952 P.2d 1190 (Ariz. App. 1998). [Termination, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
© Copyright 1999 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m31 m47 c0499