Seminary Professor Cannot Take Tenure Dispute to Court

Professor “played a ministerial role” at college, court said.

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."

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay