Key point 8-06. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying civil rights laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
* A Florida appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a woman’s claim under a state “whistle-blower” law that she had been wrongfully terminated in retaliation for charging her supervisor with assaulting her. A female principal of a church-operated private school was assaulted by a priest who also served as her supervisor. When she complained to diocesan officials, she claimed that the officials retaliated against her by terminating her employment. She sued the diocese for violating the state’s Private Sector Whistle-blower Act which prohibits employers from taking retaliatory action against employees who object to or refuse to participate in activities, policies or practices of their employer that are “in violation of a law, rule, or regulation.” Florida Statutes § 448.102(3).
The court began its opinion by referring to a United States Supreme Court ruling that interpreted the First Amendment religion clauses as placing matters of church government and administration beyond the purview of civil authorities: “Whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them.” Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1871).
The Florida court noted that this interpretation, known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” prevents the civil courts from resolving 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.” As a result, when a lawsuit challenges a church’s employment decision, “the inquiry is whether the employee is a member of the clergy or serves a ministerial function. If so, secular review is generally precluded.”
In this case, the parties conceded that the school principal was a “ministerial” employee, and the court “saw no reason why the ministerial exception should not be applied to a whistleblower claim.” Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. v. Minagorri, 2007 WL 756106 (Fla. App. 2007).