Civil Court Review of Clergy Termination Disputes—Limited Exceptions to the General Rule
Key point 2-04.02. Some courts are willing to resolve disputes over the termination of clergy if they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.
A few courts have ignored the general rule of judicial nonintervention in employment disputes between churches and clergy and have been willing to resolve some disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine. Note that such cases occurring before the Supreme Court's 2012 decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case are of dubious value. A few courts have reached this conclusion after Hosanna-Tabor. Note the following examples.
Case study. A Connecticut court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a pastor's claim that his employing church's decision to dismiss him was invalid, since it could resolve the claim on the basis of neutral principles without any inquiry into church doctrine. United Congregational Church, 2011 WL 5842378 (Conn. Super. 2012). The court concluded:
The issues raised by the pastor's complaint include: (1) whether the vote terminating his contract was taken at a meeting duly warned to consider that issue; (2) whether the motion to terminate his contract was properly seconded and, therefore, properly before the meeting; and (3) whether barring him from attendance at the meeting and preventing him from voting on the motion violated his rights as a member of the defendant non-stock corporation. The court finds that the resolution of these issues would not require the court to intrude upon the defendant's exclusive right to decide matters pertaining to doctrine or its internal governance or organization. Resolution of these issues involve questions of corporation law and the application of Robert's Rules of Order, not the application of religious doctrine or matters of governance outside the jurisdiction of the court. Under the neutral-principles approach … the court may analyze the defendant's bylaws and constitution in resolving the dispute. … The court finds that it has jurisdiction to reach the merits of the pastor's claims and to apply "the ordinary principles which govern voluntary associations" to resolve the dispute.
Case study. A federal district court for the District of Columbia ruled that a pastor's age discrimination claim against a denominational agency was barred by the "ministerial exception," but the court could resolve the pastor's claims of breach of contract, wrongful eviction, and defamation, so long as doing so would not implicate religious doctrine. Gregorio v. Hoover, 238 F.Supp.3d 37 (D.D.C. 2017). The court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Hosanna-Tabor case that the ministerial exception "ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter strictly ecclesiastical—is the church's alone." See note 78, supra, and accompanying text. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012). But, the court concluded, "the Supreme Court has expressed no view on whether the ministerial exception bars claims other than employment discrimination claims."