• Key point 10-18.1. Some courts have found denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches on the basis of a number of grounds, including negligence and agency.
* An Arizona court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by a female church member against regional and national church agencies as a result of her pastor’s financial and sexual misconduct. A woman (“Joan”) alleged that a church selected a senior pastor despite the fact that the church as well as regional and national denominational agencies had “credible information” that the pastor had a history of stealing money from members, improperly soliciting investments from members, and engaging in sexual misconduct with church members in other states. Joan claimed that the pastor defrauded her out of $286,000, and, that the pastor engaged in a sexual relationship with her “using his position as pastor and spiritual advisor to exert emotional and physical control over her in an attempt to defraud her of money.” Joan sued the regional and national denominational agencies (the “church defendants”) on the basis of several grounds including negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent supervision, emotional distress, and fraud. The national church relied on the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine, which bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes. The national church claimed that the Church of the Nazarene is a “hierarchical church” composed of three independent authorities—the local churches, the district assemblies, and the General Assembly, and that the authority of the national church was limited to making rules and regulations for departments related to the Church of the Nazarene, organizing the membership of the Church of the Nazarene into district assemblies, determining the qualifications of district assembly representatives and the boundaries of assembly districts, and defining the powers of the district assemblies. The national church maintained that it had no control over and no knowledge of the operations of local churches. The national church argued that, under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, civil courts must accept the provisions of the church’s manual.
The regional church argued that the local church was an independent entity that had the right to select and hire its own pastor, manage its own financial affairs, and control its own local work. According to the regional church, local churches report their activities annually, but it does not hire or discharge local pastors or staff members or define their duties. The regional church alleged that its only contact with the pastor in this case was in granting him the status of licensed minister which authorized him to preach, administer sacraments, and officiate at marriages. The regional church asserted that it approved or disapproved of a local church’s selection of pastor based on an ecclesiastical review. The senior pastor was required to report annually to the regional church; while others on the staff of the local church reported to the senior pastor. The regional church reviews the status of licensed ministers annually for renewal of the license. Otherwise, the regional church exercised oversight with respect to its ministers only upon complaint made by a church member. The regional church claimed that because its role was limited to licensing the pastor, any inquiry into its involvement in the case would require a review of the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene regarding licensing ministers—a matter over which, it asserted, the courts have no jurisdiction.
Joan saw the case very differently. She claimed that her lawsuit did not involve ecclesiastical issues but rather a determination whether the regional and national churches breached a “secular duty” by hiring and licensing the pastor despite knowledge of his prior victimization of parishioners.
A trial court ruled that any review of the role of either the regional or national church “would necessarily require a review of the ecclesiastical doctrine, law and polity of the Church of the Nazarene as it relates to granting licenses to ministers.” The court concluded that such an inquiry was precluded by the first amendment doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, and it dismissed the case. Joan appealed.
The state appeals court began its opinion by observing,
the first amendment and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine preclude civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters. For example, courts may not consider employment disputes between a religious organization and its clergy because such matters necessarily involve questions of internal church discipline, faith, and organization that are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law. Whether an individual is qualified to be a clergy member of a particular faith is a matter to be determined by the procedures and dictates of that particular faith. Nor can civil courts inquire into internal organizational disputes between different factions of a religious organization or into property disputes that would require interpreting religious doctrine or practice. Civil courts must 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.”
However, when a church-related dispute can be resolved by applying “neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving a religious controversy, the civil courts may resolve the dispute.” Further, because religious organizations “are part of the civil community, they are subject to societal rules governing property rights, torts, and criminal conduct. The first amendment does not excuse individuals or religious groups from complying with valid neutral laws.”
The central question was whether a civil court can “resolve claims against certain officials of a religious organization based on their alleged licensing and hiring of a pastor whom they knew or had reason to know was likely to victimize members of that organization.” The court conceded that other courts have provided different answers to this question. While some courts have concluded that the first amendment bars the civil courts from resolving claims such as Joan’s, others have concluded that “claims involving negligent hiring, supervision, and retention can be addressed without inquiring into ecclesiastical matters.” The court concluded,
In the present case, Joan claims that she was injured by the harmful conduct of individuals whom church officials placed in a position to injure her when they knew or should have known of the risk of harm presented by those individuals. In our opinion, resolution of these claims does not require the interpretation of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law; it requires application of tort law principles that are neutral and generally applicable. The national church contends that, even if neutral principles of tort law applied, the court would still have to examine the structure of the Church of the Nazarene to properly define the duties of the various defendants. Maybe so. But the court can examine the structure of a religious organization for such a purpose. A court may examine religious documents so long as it is done in purely secular terms. Any inquiry into the structure of the religious organization would not be undertaken to resolve any internal organizational dispute or the appropriateness of the conduct of the parties in relation to their religious beliefs or obligations. Inquiry into the organizational structure would be to factually determine the roles the parties played in the licensing and hiring of an employee.
The regional church insisted that Joan was attempting to have the courts assert control over local churches and pastors in contradiction to the polity of the Church of the Nazarene, which precludes interference with the local church by regional church agencies. The court disagreed, “Joan’s claims are not that broad. We also note that the manual provides for the possibility of a [regional church] superintendent disapproving a proposed pastor to a local church. Consequently, the application of neutral tort principles in this case does not conflict with the polity of the Church.”
Application. This case is important for the following reasons: (1) It represents another in a series of rulings by the civil courts that they have the authority to resolve lawsuits claiming that local churches and denominational agencies are liable on the basis of negligence for the sexual misconduct of clergy so long as they can do so on the basis of “neutral principles of law” involving no interpretation of church doctrine. As the court noted, not all courts have agreed that such disputes can be resolved without interpreting church doctrine, but many have. (2) The court also ruled that it could resolve Joan’s claim that the regional and national church agencies were legally responsible for the pastor’s financial misconduct. Joan alleged that the pastor bilked her out of $286,000, and that the regional and national church agencies should be liable for the pastor’s actions because they were aware of similar misdeeds by him in other churches. (3) The court rejected the regional and national church’s argument that they exercised insufficient “control” over the selection and supervision of clergy to be legally responsible for their misconduct. (4) The regional church argued that Joan was attempting to have the civil courts assert control over local churches and pastors in contradiction to the polity of the Church of the Nazarene, which precludes interference with the local church by regional church agencies. This is a compelling argument that the court rejected on the basis of a single provision in the Church of the Nazarene manual that authorizes regional church superintendents to “disapprove” of a proposed pastor of a local church. This illustrates the importance of legal input in the drafting and review of church manuals. Rashedi v. General Board of Church of the Nazarene, 54 P.3d 349 (Ariz. App. 2002).
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