Termination of Seminary Professors

Court rules that professor cannot sue for wrongful dismissal.

Church Law and Tax 1994-05-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

Key point: A seminary’s decision to terminate a professor is an internal ecclesiastical decision that is not reviewable by a civil court even if the seminary allegedly did not follow its bylaws.

A Texas appeals court ruled that a former professor at a Baptist seminary could not sue the seminary for wrongful termination. The trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary voted to dismiss a professor of preaching and communication for (1) a lifestyle that was not consistent with the example expected of faculty members; (2) being “a poor example of churchmanship”; (3) poor quality of work; (4) insubordination; and (5) willful distortions of the truth in reporting seminary matters. The former professor sued the seminary for wrongful termination. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was an ecclesiastical dispute over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction, and the professor appealed. On appeal, the former professor argued that the seminary was not a “church” entitled to first amendment protection; the dispute did not involve only ecclesiastical matters; and the seminary violated its own bylaws in reaching its decision. A state appeals court rejected the professor’s appeal and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court began by noting that it was irrelevant whether or not the seminary was itself a “church,” since “the key inquiry under the first amendment is whether a religious organization is making an ecclesiastical decision.” The court concluded that the seminary “is a religious organization entitled to protection under the first amendment.” The court also rejected the professor’s claim that the dispute did not involve purely ecclesiastical considerations. It observed that according to the seminary faculty manual and bylaws professors are subject to dismissal for a number of reasons including failing to be an active and faithful member of a Baptist church, failing to subscribe to the seminary’s articles of faith, or for moral delinquency. The court continued: “The uncontroverted evidence demonstrates the seminary makes employment decisions regarding faculty members largely upon religious criteria. This is consistent with the seminary’s primary purpose of providing `theological education for men and women preparing for Christian ministry.’ Additionally … there is no course taught at the seminary that has a strictly secular purpose and [the terminated professor] was a professor of preaching and communication. We hold the matter of [his] employment was clearly one of ecclesiastical concern, and could not be resolved without reference to the spiritual meaning of the requirements and guidelines set forth in the faculty manual.”

The court also rejected the professor’s claim that the seminary violated its own bylaws in dismissing him:

[T]he seminary has guidelines regarding resolution of disputes with faculty members, and the board of trustees is the adjudicating tribunal. Where religious organizations establish such guidelines and have tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them. In [1976] the Supreme Court held that the inquiry into whether the church laws and procedures had been complied with violated the first amendment. In so holding, the Court stated: “[I]t is the essence of religious faith that ecclesiastical decisions are reached and are to be accepted as matters of faith whether or not rational or measurable by objective criteria. Constitutional concepts of due process, involving secular notions of fundamental fairness or impermissible objectives, are therefore hardly relevant to such matters of ecclesiastical cognizance.” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). Civil courts are bound to 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.

The court acknowledged that Southern Baptists “have a congregational form of church government as opposed to a hierarchical system of church government.” However, “the same rule is applicable to congregational systems, in that civil courts, with reference to the determination of matters that are ecclesiastical in nature, are to give deference to those officers in which are vested the authority to make such a determination.” In this case, those officers were the seminary trustees.

Finally, the court rejected the professor’s argument that a civil court could resolve his wrongful dismissal lawsuit by applying “neutral principles of law.” It referred again to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Milivojevich case (quoted above) in which the Court announced that civil courts cannot use the “guise” of the neutral principles approach to delve into ecclesiastical disputes. Accordingly, a civil court cannot “delve into issues concerning whether [the professor’s] employment was terminated in accordance with [neutral principles of law].” Patterson v. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 858 S.W.2d 602 (Tex. App. Forth Worth 1993).

See Also: Termination

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