Alicea v. New Brunswick Theological Seminary, 608 A.2d 218 (N.J. 1992)
Key point: The civil courts ordinarily will not interfere with the decisions of religious organizations to dismiss clergy performing ministerial functions, unless the organization has consented to civil court review in an employment contract or handbook.
In a case decided the same day as the Seton Hall case, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that it had no authority to review the decision of a Reformed seminary to deny a professor tenure.
The professor was an ordained minister who taught courses on church history and urban ministry. The court refused to review the professor's claim that he had improperly been denied tenure. It emphasized that (unlike the nuns involved in the Seton Hall case) the professor in this case "clearly played a ministerial role" and "played an instrumental role in training ministers" who would be the spokespersons of the Reformed Church. The court explained:
[B]oth this court and the United States Supreme Court have recognized that "there are many cases in which court intervention is simply inappropriate because judicial scrutiny cannot help but violate the first amendment" [guaranty of religious freedom] …. Some cases, because of the doctrinal nature of the dispositive issue, should not be in our courts …. When state action would impose restrictions on a religious institution's decisions regarding employees who perform ministerial functions under the employment relationship at issue, courts may not interfere in the employment relationship unless the agreement between the parties indicates that they have waived their free-exercise rights and unless the incidents of litigation—depositions, subpoenas, document discovery and the like—would not unconstitutionally disrupt the administration of the religious institution.
The court declined the professor's request to send the dispute to a faculty-student committee for resolution (this was an option mentioned in the seminary's faculty manual). It observed: "We do not intend to foreclose a holder of ecclesiastical office, including a minister, from enforcing contractual provisions that expressly impose mandatory safeguards amenable to constitutional application of neutral principles la law. However, we cannot enforce contractual provisions, like those in [the faculty manual] that are both vague and clearly optional."