A Georgia court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a lawsuit brought by a minister challenging the legality of his removal by his church. A pastor was called by a Baptist church in 1987. The church is governed by a constitution and bylaws, which specify that the “pastor shall be called for as long a period of time as mutual satisfaction shall prevail.” In 1994, 46 of the 59 church members who were present at the annual membership meeting voted to terminate the pastor’s employment. Following this meeting, the pastor contacted an attorney who wrote the church claiming that the termination was improper because it did not conform to the rules set forth in the church constitution and bylaws. The attorney claimed that those rules mandated that the personnel committee or the board of deacons recommend the pastor’s discharge to the congregation, which had not been done. In response to this letter, the board of deacons approved the actions of the church membership and recommended that the members vote to reaffirm its previous decision. Accordingly, another membership meeting was called, at which the membership voted to reaffirm its previous termination of the pastor. The pastor was still not satisfied, and filed a lawsuit claiming that he had not been lawfully removed. The church responded by insisting that the termination was proper. It also asserted that there was “just cause” for the pastor’s termination, including his failure to attend to “the individual spiritual and emotional needs of the congregation” and his failure “to minister in a manner consistent with the church’s view of the best method for preaching the Christian Gospel.” A trial court dismissed the case, concluding that it had no jurisdiction pursuant to the first amendment of the United States Constitution since the pastor was asking it to interpret ecclesiastical rules of the church. The court also concluded that the pastor was an “employee at will” and as such had no cause of action against the church for wrongful termination. The pastor appealed, claiming that resolution of this dispute would not constitute an impermissible intrusion by the court into ecclesiastical matters. On the contrary, he insisted that the dispute involved property rights-a permissible category of court inquiry.
A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It relied largely on two decisions of the United States Supreme Court. In the first, the Supreme Court concluded that the civil courts could not interfere with a church’s decision to remove a minister. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The Court concluded that “civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” The Georgia court concluded that “what is involved here falls within that territory, which must remain foreign to civil tribunals.” In the second case, the Supreme Court concluded that “[f]reedom to select the clergy, where no improper methods of choice are proven, we think, must now be said to have federal constitutional protection as a part of the free exercise of religion against state interference.” Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952). The Georgia court concluded that the trial court “correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the matter.”
The court rejected the relevance of two cases cited by the pastor. In the first case, a Georgia court permitted a pastor to sue his church for wrongful termination. Reddick v. Jones, 304 S.E.2d 389 (1983). The court emphasized that the pastor’s “year to year contract” was a valuable legal interest that the courts could protect in the event it was breached by the church. In dismissing the relevance of this earlier case, the court in the present case simply noted that “the pastor had a year-to-year employment contract, whereas in this case no such contract was involved.” In the second case, the Georgia Supreme Court addressed a case in which the pastor of one church filed a complaint to enjoin the bishop of another church “from interfering with his performing his duties and receiving the benefits of his office as pastor” Hickman v. Booker, 200 S.E.2d 279 (1973). The court concluded that “the pastor’s salary was a sufficient, disputed property interest to allow the court to assume jurisdiction.” In rejecting the relevance of this ruling, the court in the present case noted that the pastor’s salary “is only peripheral to the main issue of the case-whether [he] was properly terminated. And the determination of whether [he] was properly fired was not a question properly before the [trial] court.”
Application. This case illustrates the fundamental principle that the civil courts will not resolve disputes involving the legality of a church’s dismissal of a minister. In the Kedroff case (referred to above), the Supreme Court observed:
There are occasions when civil courts must draw lines between the responsibilities of church and state for the disposition or use of property. Even in those cases when the property right follows as an incident from decisions of the church custom or law on ecclesiastical issues, the church rule controls. This under our Constitution necessarily follows in order that there may be free exercise of religion.
The Kedroff decision is important since it specifically holds that alleged violations or interference with “property rights” cannot serve as a basis for civil court review of a church’s decision regarding the qualifications or dismissal of a pastor where “the property right follows as an incident from decisions of the church … on ecclesiastical issues.” The Georgia court recognized this important principle by noting that the pastor’s alleged “property right” (his salary) “is only peripheral to the main issue of the case-whether [he] was properly terminated.”
A few courts have been willing to resolve clergy termination disputes if a civil, contract, or property right was allegedly violated that was independent of (rather than incident to) the disciplinary process and that required no inquiry into religious doctrine or polity. Few disputes satisfy these strict conditions. The key point is this: the alleged civil, contract, or property right must be independent of and not a consequence of an underlying ecclesiastical dispute involving ecclesiastical doctrine, polity, or discipline. As the Supreme Court itself has observed, there is no basis for civil court review if the alleged property right that was violated by a church’s dismissal of a minister is “an incident from decisions of the church … on ecclesiastical issues.” Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 (1928).
Further, a number of courts have noted that the mere assertion that a civil, contract, or property right has been violated is not enough to warrant civil court intervention, for this often can be a spurious effort to involve a court in an essentially ecclesiastical controversy. Bledsoe v. Morningside Baptist Church, 501 S.E.2d 292 (Ga. App. 1998). [Termination, Prayer on Public Property]
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