Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A Michigan appeals court ruled that a trial court was not barred by the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” from resolving a dismissed church employee’s age discrimination claim against her former church if it could do so without resorting to church doctrine.
A female employee (the “plaintiff”) had worked for a church for over 30 years. At the time of her termination, she was employed as the church’s business manager. In 2012, the church hired a new senior pastor. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff claimed that the new pastor began asking her “when are you going to retire,” and generally treating her with disdain and hostility.
In 2015, the tensions between the plaintiff and the pastor came to a head when the pastor discovered that the plaintiff was receiving an additional five weeks of vacation pay in addition to her regular weekly salary.
The plaintiff claimed that a previous pastor had authorized the five weeks of vacation pay for all tenured employees in 1999. The new pastor believed that this agreement was unenforceable because it was made verbally, and he convened a panel to investigate the plaintiff’s salary.
In May 2016, following the investigation, the plaintiff was given two options: continue her employment with the church without the extra five weeks of vacation pay or retire. The plaintiff found neither option acceptable. The plaintiff was ultimately placed on a two-week administrative leave, but was notified on July 28, 2016, that her employment status had been converted to a discharge, effective July 25, 2016.