Resolving Disputes Between Clergy and Denominations

Civil courts cannot resolve disputes involving ecclesiastical issues.

Church Law and Tax 1995-03-01 Recent Developments

Libel and Slander

Key point: The civil courts cannot resolve disputes between clergy and denominational agencies that involve doctrinal or essentially ecclesiastical issues. Some courts interpret this rule to prohibit the resolution of claims by clergy asserting they were defamed by denominational officials.

A federal district in Kentucky ruled that denominational leaders were not guilty of defaming a minister. A conflict arose in a local Lutheran church between a pastor and some members of the congregation. A denominational official intervened in an attempt to resolve the problem. The official prepared a report to the church council that stated: “A significant number of members have experienced the Pastor as being aloof; as being the boss, as being dogmatic; as not being open to the persons who disagree or have different viewpoints, even to the point of feeling that they are dismissed from friendship; as not always hearing what the other person is trying to say; as having particular difficulty in appreciating women as equals; as one who talks negatively about persons to others (behind their backs), sometimes close to the point of breaking confidentiality.” The pastor also alleged that his bishop defamed him by asserting that the pastor was going to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. The court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that it was an ecclesiastical dispute even though no specific church doctrine was involved. The court observed:

Not only is the interaction between a church and its pastor an integral part of church government, but all matters touching this relationship are of ecclesiastical concern. It makes no difference that the ecclesiastical dispute fails to touch on church or religious doctrine. “Whose voice speaks for the church is per se a religious matter. We cannot imagine an area of inquiry less suited to a temporal court for decision; evaluation of the gifts and graces of a minister must be left to ecclesiastical institutions” ….

The matters in this case concern the intimate relationship between a pastor and his congregation. In an attempt to resolve an inner church conflict, Lutheran leadership investigated congregational attitudes toward [the pastor]. The investigation was done in accordance with the constitutional provisions of the church. The alleged defamatory statements were made in connection with the mediation process and strictly within the confines of the church. There can be no doubt that the matters in this case concerned the minister’s current and future employment relationship with the church. As such, they are matters of ecclesiastical concern, over which this court has no jurisdiction. Wisdom mandates that we refrain from dictating to a congregation that if they are unhappy with their religious leader they cannot freely speak their mind. In a mediation process between minister and congregation, all parties should be able to express their innermost feelings without fear of reprisal from the courts. If we were to accept jurisdiction over such matters, it would require us to delve into the church constitution and its procedures for settling internal disputes. If truth were a defense to the defamation claim, we presumably could face inquiry into determination of the minister’s effectiveness. Not only is this precisely what the First Amendment prohibits, but Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit authority prohibit us from exercising such jurisdiction were we so inclined. Accordingly, [the synod’s] motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction will be granted. Yaggie v. Indiana-Kentucky Synod, 1994 WL 462298 (W.D. Ky. 1994).

See Also: The Pastor as Plaintiff

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