Pastor, Church & Law

Civil Court Review of Clergy Selection Disputes—the General Rule of Non-Intervention

§ 02.01.04

Key point 2-01.04. The selection of a minister is an ecclesiastical decision that the civil courts ordinarily will not review—even when it is alleged that a church failed to follow its own internal procedures in the selection of a minister, or the selection process was discriminatory.

What authority do the civil courts have to review church or denominational decisions regarding the selection of clergy? The United States Supreme Court has ruled that “[f]reedom to select the clergy, where no improper methods of choice are proven, we think, must now be said to have federal constitutional protection as a part of the free exercise of religion against state interference.”13 Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).Similarly, the Supreme Court has observed that “it is the function of the church authorities to determine what the essential qualifications of [clergy] are and whether the candidate possesses them.”14 Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 (1929).

Several courts have applied this fundamental principle of judicial non-intervention in disputes involving the selection and appointment of ministers, including a number of federal appeals courts. For example, one federal appeals court ruled that since a minister is the “lifeblood” of the church, the assignment of a minister is inherently a matter of ecclesiastical concern.15 McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 896 (1972).Another federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom “precludes governmental interference with ecclesiastical hierarchies, church administration, and appointment of clergy.16 King’s Garden, Inc. v. FCC, 498 F.2d 51, 56 (D.C. Cir. 1974) (emphasis added).

“This case involves the fundamental question of who will preach from the pulpit of a church. … The bare statement of the question should make obvious the lack of jurisdiction of a civil court. That answer to that question must come from the church.” Simpson v. Wells Lamont Corporation, 494 F.2d 490 (5th Cir. 1974).

Other examples of federal appeals court and state court decisions are set forth below.

Case study. The federal appeals court for the District of Columbia circuit refused to hear a claim by a Methodist minister that an annual conference of the United Methodist Church discriminated against him on account of age in refusing to appoint him to a suitable parish. The court emphasized that any determination regarding “whose voice speaks for the church” is a religious matter, and that the “evaluation of the gifts and graces of a minister must be left to ecclesiastical institutions.” The pastor had argued that the refusal of civil courts to resolve controversies regarding the selection of clergy could lead to “the most egregious civil rights violations.” For example, he suggested that under the court’s rule of non-interference “the courts would be prevented from enforcing homicide statutes against churches that selected their pastors by making them play Russian roulette.” The court rejected this claim, noting that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom is subject to a “balancing” test. Clearly, the governmental interest in preserving life and preventing homicides would outweigh the interests of a church in selecting clergy through such means. The court noted that there may be other civil rights that outweigh a church’s constitutionally protected right to select its clergy, but the federal policy of eliminating age discrimination is not one of them. The court stressed that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom is at its apex when the church-pastor relationship is involved, and that non-clergy church employees are entitled to a lesser degree of protection. Further, “a church is always free to burden its activities voluntarily through contracts, and such contracts are fully enforceable.” Therefore, a church can limit its authority to select or terminate a minister by contractual provisions.17 Minker v. Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 894 F.2d 1354 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

Case study. The federal appeals court for the first circuit (covering the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) ruled that “[h]owever a suit may be labeled, once a court is called upon to probe into a religious body’s selection and retention of clergymen, the First Amendment [guaranty of religious freedom] is implicated. … The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern.” The court concluded that any judicial review of decisions involving the selection or termination of clergy “would require judicial intrusion into rules, policies, and decisions which are unmistakably of ecclesiastical cognizance. They are, therefore, not the federal courts’ concern. …”18 Natal v. Christian and Missionary Alliance, 878 F.2d 1575 (1st Cir. 1989).

Case study. The federal appeals court for the fourth circuit (covering the states of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) rejected a woman’s claim that the failure of the Seventh Day Adventist church to appoint her to a particular pastoral position discriminated against her on the basis of sex and race. The court agreed that the government’s interest in eradicating discrimination based on sex and race was of the highest order, but it nevertheless concluded that it was outweighed by a church’s constitutionally protected right to choose its clergy. It observed that “the right to choose ministers without government restriction underlies the well-being of the religious community, for perpetuation of a church’s existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large.” The court emphasized that its ruling was limited to a church’s right to select clergy, and that the government’s interest in eliminating race and sex discrimination would outweigh a church’s right to discriminate in decisions affecting non-clergy employees.19 Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985).

Other federal appeals courts have reached the following conclusions:

    • “Stripped to its essence, the dispute between Bishop Dixon and Father Edwards concerns whether the principles governing the Episcopal Church authorize the Bishop to refuse Father Edwards a license. The defendants maintain that a duly qualified priest is merely one in good standing; Bishop Dixon, on the other hand, maintains that a duly qualified priest is one whose views are not inconsistent with her ministry. The resolution of this disagreement is beyond our competence as a civil court, because it is the function of the church authorities to determine what the essential qualifications of [clergy] are and whether the candidate possesses them.”20 Dixon v. Edwards, 290 F.3d 699 (4th Cir. 2002), quoting the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 (1929).
    • “It has thus become established that the decisions of religious entities about the appointment and removal of ministers and persons in other positions of similar theological significance are beyond the ken of civil courts.”21 Bell v. Presbyterian Church, 126 F.3d 328 (4th Cir. 1997).
    • “We conclude that the First Amendment bars civil courts from reviewing decisions of religious judicatory bodies relating to the employment of clergy.”22 Lewis v. Seventh Day Adventists Lake Region Conference, 978 F.2d 940 (6th Cir. 1992).
    • “The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment forbids a review of a church’s procedures when it makes employment decisions affecting its clergy.”23 Young v. Northern Illinois Conference of United Methodist Church, 21 F.3d 184 (7th Cir. 1994).

Numerous state courts have followed the general rule of judicial non-intervention in controversies involving the selection of clergy. Listed below are the conclusions of several state courts in cases applying the general rule of judicial non-intervention in cases involving the selection or appointment of clergy:

      • “Civil courts must abstain from deciding ministerial employment disputes or reviewing decisions of religious judicatory bodies concerning the employment of clergy.”24 Dobrota v. Free Serbian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas, 952 P.2d 1190 (Ariz. 1998).
      • “The teaching of this line of authority is that secular courts will not attempt to right wrongs related to the hiring, firing, discipline or administration of clergy. Implicit in this statement of the rule is the acknowledgement that such wrongs may exist, that they may be severe, and that the administration of the church itself may be inadequate to provide a remedy. The preservation of the free exercise of religion is deemed so important a principle as to overshadow the inequities which may result from its liberal application. In our society, jealous as it is of separation of church and state, one who enters the clergy forfeits the protection of the civil authorities in terms of job rights.”25 Higgins v. Maher, 258 Cal. Rptr. 757 (Cal. App. 1989).
      • Courts have consistently held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibits judicial encroachment into church decisions where those decisions turn on church policy or on religious doctrine or practice. Except for contractual disputes, this prohibition includes church decisions concerning the employment of ministers because selection and termination of clergy is a core matter of ecclesiastical self-governance not subject to interference by a state.”26 Heard v. Johnson, 810 A.2d 871 (D.C. 2002). Accord West v. Morris?711 A.2d 1269 (D.C. 1998).
      • “Any church, whether hierarchical or congregational, has the autonomy to select the clergy as long as the method of selection comports with the church’s governing law.”27 Ervin v. Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, 813 N.E.2d 1073 (Ill. App. 2004).
      • “There are few matters more ecclesiastical in nature than selecting the lead pastor of a church. …”28 Emmanuel House of Prayer Church of God in Christ, Inc. v. Hall, 787 N.E.2d 1020 (Ind. App. 2003).
      • “Courts should not involve themselves in matters relating to the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of clergy.”29 Lacy v. Bassett, 132 S.W.3d 119 (Tex. App. 2004). See also Moultin v. Baptist Church, 498 S.W.3d 143 (Tex. App. 2016).
      • “Generally, courts will not interfere in canonical or ecclesiastical controversies regarding clergymen’s employment at a church. The selection or assignment of clergy, and the removal, termination, or suspension of a pastor or clergy member are generally ecclesiastical matters with which civil courts cannot interfere.”30 Thibodeau v. American Baptist Churches, 994 A.2d 212 (Conn. App. 2010).

The principle of judicial non-intervention in disputes involving the selection or appointment of ministers has been applied in several cases–even when it is alleged that a church failed to follow its own internal procedures in the selection of a minister, or the selection process was discriminatory. For example, one court concluded that it had no jurisdiction to determine whether or not an interim minister was improperly appointed since “[t]he appointment of a minister is a purely ecclesiastical matter which should not be subject to review by a civil or secular court.”31 Wilkerson v. Battiste, 393 So.2d 195, 197 (La. App. 1980). See also Williams v. Palmer, 532 N.E.2d 1061 (Ill. App. 3rd Dist. 1988).In another case involving the selection of a minister within the United Methodist Church, a court observed:

[T]he appointment of a pastor is a purely subjective decision to be made by the empowered bishop to advance the purpose of the church organization. Appointment is undoubtedly an ecclesiastical matter to which judicial deference is mandated by the First Amendment. Whether or not the conference followed required procedure in appointing [the minister] is not for a civil court to consider, because it would entail scrutinizing the appointment decision-making process and reviewing the subjective criteria used by the church organization in reaching its decision.32 Williams v. Palmer, 532 N.E.2d 1061 (Ill. App. 3rd Dist. 1988) (emphasis added). See also Kaufman v. Sheehan, 707 F.2d 355 (8th Cir. 1983).

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay