Recent Developments in Federal Court Regarding Clergy Removal

A federal appeals court ruled that it had no authority to resolve a “wrongful termination” claim brought by a minister against a religious employer.

Church Law and Tax1998-01-01


Key point. The dismissal of a minister is an ecclesiastical decision, and therefore the civil courts are barred by the first amendment from resolving claims by dismissed ministers that their dismissals were wrongful.

A federal appeals court ruled that it had no authority to resolve a “wrongful termination” claim brought by a minister against a religious employer. In 1991 an outreach program supported by several denominations “called” an ordained United Church of Christ minister to be its executive director. The new director was informed that his position would be an extension of his ministry with the United Church of Christ, and a portion of his compensation was designated as a housing allowance. Within a few years the program began to experience serious financial difficulties. In 1995, the Presbyterian Church, one of the program’s main financial supporters, decided that because of the financial crisis it would not allocate further funds to the program for 1996. It also conditioned fulfillment of its 1995 commitment on the program conducting a “reduction in force” and relocating to other facilities. In response to the Presbyterian Church’s withdrawal of support, the program’s board of directors promptly initiated a reduction in force, intending to continue the program’s ministry with a volunteer staff. In its letter of termination to its director the board stated, in part:

Your termination is based solely upon the financial condition of [the program] which has led the board of directors to enact a complete reduction in force. In this termination, there is absolutely no reflection on the quality of your work …. I would again express to you my admiration and appreciation of your work, my regret for the situation that makes this reduction necessary, and my gratitude for the helpfulness which you are continuing to give to [the program].

Several months later, the former director sued the board of directors and four contributing religious organizations, challenging their expressed reason for ending the program and terminating his employment. He complained that the defendants (1) interfered with his contract; (2) intentionally inflicted on him emotional distress; (3) breached a covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (4) interfered with his prospective advantage; (5) wrongfully terminated him; and (6) that the religious organizations breached their pledge to contribute to the program on a yearly basis. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that “by reason of the first amendment, a civil court has no jurisdiction over ecclesiastical decisions by churches as to how they are going to expend their funds.” The former director appealed.

A federal appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It began its opinion by noting that the “civil courts have long taken care not to intermeddle in internal ecclesiastical disputes” and that “it has thus become established that the decisions of religious entities about the appointment and removal of ministers and persons in other positions of similar theological significance are beyond the [ability] of civil courts.” It quoted from a 1976 Supreme Court decision holding that the civil courts must defer to the decisions of religious organizations “on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law.” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). Was the dispute between the former director and the four national churches an ecclesiastical one about “discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law”? If so, the civil courts are without authority to resolve it. Or, was it a case in which religious organizations could be found liable in civil court for a “purely secular dispute”? The court concluded that this dispute was ecclesiastical. It observed:

At bottom, however, [the former director’s] challenge focuses on how the constituent churches spend their religious outreach funds. While it is possible that the Presbyterian Church may have harbored hostility against [the director] personally, it is also possible that the church may have been acting in good faith to fulfill its discernment of the divine will for its ministry. Resolution of such an accusation would interpose the judiciary into the Presbyterian Church’s decisions, as well as the decisions of the other constituent churches, relating to how and by whom they spread their message and specifically their decision to select their outreach ministry through the granting or withholding of funds ….

[The program] is not a secular organization with which the national constituent churches had a secular relationship. On the contrary, [it] constituted a ministry of those constituent churches, and this was understood by all persons involved. The national churches maintain that they were engaging in ministry as directed by scripture, relying on Deuteronomy 15:11; Proverbs 21:3; Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 58:10; Amos 5:22-24; and Matthew 5:14-16, which they read to describe spreading light in the world and pursuing social justice as core Judeo—Christian values. Their claim is borne out by the charter of [the program] which provides that it is organized “to advance the jointly shared religious purposes of its members, namely, to carry out their theological imperative to increase the possibilities for peace, economic and social justice.” [The program’s] religious purpose is also borne out by [its] engagement of [the director] in its “ministry.” Indeed, their engagement letter to [him] concluded, “We hope this will be a rewarding ministry for you.” Finally, [the director] himself treated his position as a ministry. He obtained approval from his church to engage as director … as part of his ministry, and he agreed to the designation of part of his salary as a parsonage allowance for tax purposes. In summary, in carrying out his duties, [the director] worked to spread the shared religious beliefs of [the program’s] constituent members and to promote their Judeo—Christian values.

As this court has previously noted, a person is a member of a religion’s clergy “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 and worship.” Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh—Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir.1985) …. In light of this precedent, it follows that [the director] was serving in a religious ministry while acting as executive director of [the program].

When the Presbyterian Church decided to withhold its funds from [the program], causing the end of [the director’s] work, the Presbyterian Church, as well as the other churches, made a decision on how it would expend funds raised by the church for religious purposes, which directly related to its outreach ministry and [the director’s] status as a minister. Such a decision about the nature, extent, administration, and termination of a religious ministry falls within the ecclesiastical sphere that the first amendment protects from civil court intervention.

Application. This case illustrates the difficulty that ministers face in challenging the decisions by churches and other religious organization to dismiss them. The court’s ruling provides helpful guidance in evaluating the “ministerial status” of those ministers employed by parachurch ministries. Bell v. Presbyterian Church, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir. 1997). [ Termination, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes, The Establishment Clause]

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