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Civil Court Review of Clergy Selection Disputes—Limited Exceptions to the General Rule

§ 2.01.05
Key point 2-01.05. A minority of courts are willing to review the selection of ministers in limited circumstances so long as they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.

A few courts have been willing to resolve controversies involving the selection of clergy not involving religious discipline, faith, rule, custom, or law. For example, a minister may have been elected at a meeting which was not properly called. Some courts have concluded that there is no legitimate basis, constitutional or otherwise, for a civil court to refrain from resolving such a dispute. The Supreme Court has observed that the civil courts need not stay their hand in every case involving a church dispute, since "not every civil court decision jeopardizes values protected by the First Amendment."[33] Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969). Further, the Supreme Court's recognition that churches have a constitutionally protected right to select clergy only pertains to instances "where no improper methods of choice are proven."[34] See note 13, supra, and accompanying text. Accordingly, a number of courts have intervened in church disputes involving the selection of a minister if there has been an allegation of "improper methods of choice."

To illustrate, the constitution of a Lutheran church provided that "the candidate receiving the majority of all votes cast shall, upon unanimous approval, be declared elected." The church convened a congregational meeting to vote on a pastoral candidate, and the candidate received a majority of the votes cast (but not "unanimous approval"). The candidate was subsequently employed, and a group of dissidents filed a lawsuit in which they asked a civil court to enforce the church's constitutional requirement of "unanimous approval." While noting that the First Amendment prohibits a court "from entangling itself in matters of church doctrine or practice," the court concluded that it could resolve controversies, such as this one, involving the interpretation "of an ambiguous provision in what amounts to a contract between the members of the congregation, dealing with a purely procedural question" and involving "no ecclesiastical or doctrinal issues." The court also noted that it found no "dispute resolution process" within the denomination to which it could defer.[35] Organization for Preserving the Constitution of Zion Lutheran Church v. Mason, 743 P.2d 848 (Wash. App. 1987). Most courts define "doctrinal" issues broadly, thereby reducing considerably the number of clergy selection disputes they are willing to review.

Case study. A minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E. Church) filed a lawsuit claiming that his bishop failed to honor a promise to appoint him to a particular church. The minister claimed that when other ministers became aware that the bishop was going to appoint him as pastor of the church, they contacted the bishop and persuaded him not to follow through on his promise. The minister sued the other ministers for interfering with a contract, and the bishop for breaking his promise. An Arkansas state appeals court noted that "it is not unconstitutional for civil courts to resolve legal disputes involving a church or minister so long as the court is not required to interpret church doctrine to render a decision." The minister claimed that he was asking a civil court to render a decision on the merits of his case without consulting A.M.E. doctrine or polity. The court concluded that it could not resolve the minister's claim against the bishop without consulting church doctrine: "It is impossible to decide the [claim against the bishop] without inquiring in to A.M.E. Church doctrine and polity and drawing conclusions as to what those doctrines provide. In order to [prevail the minister] must prove reasonable reliance on the alleged promise of [the bishop] to appoint him to the pastorship of [the church]. This necessarily requires inquiry into A.M.E. Church doctrine and polity to determine whether it is reasonable to rely on the promise of an A.M.E. Church bishop that he is going to appoint one to a specific pastorship. This requires the court to determine whether church doctrine gives bishops authority to promise appointments. Such an inquiry is impermissible under the First Amendment."[36] Belin v. West, 864 S.W.2d 838 (Ark. 1993).

The general rule of judicial non-intervention in clergy selection disputes, and the limited exceptions, may be summarized as follows:

General rule. A church's right to select clergy is a constitutional right of the highest order. Accordingly, the civil courts generally will not resolve controversies regarding the selection of clergy.
Limited exceptions to the general rule. Some courts have recognized the following exceptions to the general rule. For each exception it is assumed that a court can resolve the dispute involving the appointment of a minister without recourse to "religious discipline, faith, rule, custom, or law."
(1) Violation of civil rights. Church decisions regarding the selection of clergy may be reviewed if a fundamental civil right is implicated that outweighs a church's constitutionally protected right to select clergy. At this time, no case has arisen that has presented a civil right of sufficient importance to outweigh a church's right to choose clergy free from judicial scrutiny. However, one court suggested that violation of the criminal law in some cases might present such a case. The right to be free from discrimination based on race, sex, and age—while of paramount importance—does not outweigh a church's right to select clergy in the manner it chooses.
(2) Contracts. Churches will be legally bound by their oral and written contracts. As a result, controversies regarding the selection of clergy may be reviewed by the civil courts if a contract right is involved. The Supreme Court has ruled that the courts may review contracts governing "the manner in which churches own property, hire employees, or purchase goods."[37] Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 606 (1979) (emphasis added). However, the mere assertion of a "breach of contract" will not be sufficient to trigger civil court review. And, a court may only enforce contracts between churches and clergy if doing so does not implicate religious doctrine.[38] See, e.g., Williams v. Palmer, 532 N.E.2d 1061 (Ill. App. 1988) (court refused to hear case despite pastor's claim of "breach of contract" and "interference with contractual relations").
(3) Nondoctrinal "procedural" disputes. A few courts have ruled that they have authority to resolve controversies involving the selection of clergy if there is a purely procedural dispute not involving religious discipline, faith, rule, custom, or law. An example would be an ambiguous provision in a church's bylaws concerning the notice to be given for a church business meeting at which a minister is selected. The United States Supreme Court seemed to sanction this exception when it noted that a church's constitutionally protected right to select clergy only pertains to instances "where no improper methods of choice are proven."[39] See note 13, supra, and accompanying text.
(4) Non-clergy staff. The courts are more willing to review controversies involving the selection of non-clergy church staff, since a church's constitutional right to select such employees is less substantial than the right to select clergy.
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