Reference Letters

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a religious organization could not be sued for giving a negative reference on a former employee.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

* The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a religious organization could not be sued for giving a negative reference on a former employee. A church hired a new pastor. The pastor met with a pastoral associate (Linda) and gave her the choice of resigning or being fired. Linda chose to be fired. She claimed that the pastor told her that the reason she was being fired was that "she intimidated him, that they could not get along, and that he did not like working with her." The church insisted that Linda had been fired for her "expression of unorthodox theological views and conduct offensive to church teachings." Linda sued her church for defamation, claiming that the pastor had "unlawfully, untruthfully, and intentionally made misleading and slanderous remarks" about her and had "implied that there was something of a bad and sinister nature" about her, "thereby causing her irreparable harm, injury, and damages and rendering her sick, stressed, and physically debilitated." Specifically, Linda alleged that after she was fired the pastor stated that she "cannot be trusted with seven year old children"; that the reasons for her termination were "personal and confidential"; and that she was "incapable of Christian ministry" and had a "vindictive heart."

While her lawsuit was pending, Linda applied for a position as director of a "program for church leaders" at a Catholic university. A search committee unanimously recommended that she be hired for the position. However, when the university president learned of the recommendation, he denied her the position because she was suing her former church. Linda believed that church officials had contacted the university and persuaded them not to hire her. As a result, she amended her pending lawsuit to include an allegation that the church had interfered with the university's hiring process and "blacklisted" her. A trial court dismissed these claims on the ground that they were barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. Linda appealed. The state supreme court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Linda's lawsuit.

state blacklisting law

The Indiana legislature enacted a "blacklisting law" that addressed employer liability for giving references on former employees. It states, "An employer that discloses information about a current or former employee is immune from civil liability for the disclosure and the consequences proximately caused by the disclosure, unless it is proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the information disclosed was known to be false at the time the disclosure was made." The court concluded that the church could not be liable under this statute since Linda "does not claim that any of the alleged disclosures that led to her denial of [her employment] were false. She would therefore have no claim for blacklisting under the statute."

first amendment

The court also noted that the "church autonomy doctrine" required a dismissal of Linda's claims. This doctrine, rooted in the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom, assures churches "an independence from secular control or manipulation, in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." The court concluded,

Linda would have us apply the blacklisting statute and tort law to penalize communication and coordination among church officials on a matter of internal church policy and administration that did not culminate in any illegal act. Such a holding would violate the church autonomy doctrine and run counter to the Supreme Court's declaration [that] "the fundamental law declares the interest of the United States that the free exercise of religion be not prohibited and that freedom to communicate information and opinion be not abridged." Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940).

Application. This case is important for the following reasons:

1. It illustrates that state law may provide employers with immunity from liability for providing references on current or former employees, so long as they do not share information that they know to be false.

2. The case directly addresses a church's ability to consider legal action taken against it by a current or former employee in making employment decisions. The court concluded that is would violate the first amendment to subject a church to legal liability for informing another church (in a letter of reference) that a former employee was engaged in a lawsuit against it. Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, Inc., 796 N.E.2d 286 (Ind. 2003).

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