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Appellate Court: Age Discrimination Claim Against Church May Proceed

Lower court instructed to evaluate merits of dismissed employee's lawsuit, suggesting possible vulnerability for churches.

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.

The plaintiff sued the church and its pastor, alleging age discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The defendants asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that the lawsuit “seeks intervention by the court on matters that are at the heart of internal church governance.” Accordingly, the defendants sought dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint on the basis that allowing the trial court to decide her claims would result in the trial court becoming “entangled in ecclesiastical questions of church governance.”

The trial court agreed, and dismissed the case on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction “because resolution of the claims would involve an impermissible inquiry into the church’s internal procedures.” Accordingly, the trial court’s jurisdiction was “prohibited by the First Amendment [of the United States Constitution] and summary disposition is appropriate.” The plaintiff appealed.

The appeals court noted that the trial court’s conclusion that it lacked jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s complaint was based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. This doctrine, and its boundaries, were explained in a recent ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court:

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine arises from the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and reflects this Court’s longstanding recognition that it would be inconsistent with complete and untrammeled religious liberty for civil courts to enter into a consideration of church doctrine or church discipline, to inquire into the regularity of the proceedings to church tribunals having cognizance of such matters, or to determine whether a resolution was passed in accordance with the canon law of the church, except insofar as it may be necessary to do so, in determining whether or not it was the church that acted therein. Accordingly, we have consistently held that the court may not substitute its opinion in lieu of that of the authorized tribunals of the church in ecclesiastical matters, and that judicial interference in the purely ecclesiastical affairs of religious organizations is improper.

However, simply because a religious organization may be a defendant in a civil action, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not divest the trial court’s jurisdiction. Rather, the “doctrine informs how civil courts must adjudicate claims involving ecclesiastical questions; it does not deprive those courts of subject matter jurisdiction over such claims.” Winkler v. Marist Fathers, 901 N.W.2d 566 (Mich. 2017).

As a result, “when a claim is brought against a religious entity, the relevant inquiry becomes whether the actual adjudication of a particular legal claim would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions; if so, the court must abstain from resolving those questions itself, defer to the religious entity’s resolution of such questions, and adjudicate the claim accordingly.”

The court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s clams without evaluating whether they could be resolved without recourse to church doctrine. The court remanded the case back to the trial court “in order for the trial court to determine whether and to what extent the adjudication of the legal and factual issues presented by the plaintiff’s claims would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions.”

What this means for churches

This case illustrates what many courts call the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine. Under this doctrine the civil courts are barred by the First Amendment religion clauses from resolving most internal church disputes.

While not using the terminology “ecclesiastical abstention,” the United States Supreme Court described the basic principle in a 1976 ruling in which it noted that the civil courts lack jurisdiction over internal church disputes that are

strictly and purely ecclesiastical in [their] character . . . a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them. Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

Even so, as one court has noted:

Plaintiffs are not categorically prohibited from ever seeking redress from the courts solely because a religious organization is somehow involved in the dispute. When a church-related dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving religious controversy, the civil courts may adjudicate the dispute. Gilmore v. Trinity Church, 2018 Mich. App. LEXIS 3258 (Mich. App. 2018), quoting Bendross v. Readon, 89 So.3d 258 (Fla. App. 2012).

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Posted:
  • September 11, 2019