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 federal court in Ohio refused to dismiss a minister’s legal challenge to his termination since the termination may have been based on purely secular grounds and a court could potentially resolve the minister’s lawsuit without implicating church doctrine or polity.
The decision represents a surprising departure from numerous ones previously made by state and federal courts, in which deference is shown to churches regarding pastoral dismissals, based on constitutional considerations. This holding offers important cautions and reminders to church leaders when faced with the possibility of firing a pastor.
Pastor: Elders sought to alienate him from his church
In 2020, a pastor alleged that two church elders (the defendants) took it upon themselves to cost him his position by interfering with and terminating his contractual relationship with the church.
In particular, the pastor claimed that the defendants conspired to develop a scheme by which they attempted to alienate him from the church. Among other things, the pastor said the defendants allegedly arranged an unlawful meeting of select members to vote him out of his position and formally terminate his employment with the church.
The pastor asserted that the defendants did not have any authority under the church’s bylaws to call the election. The pastor also said the defendants falsely asserted that they had obtained the requisite number and percentage of votes at the meeting to divest the pastor of his position with the church.
The church hired the pastor in 2000. On or about February 6, 2020, the defendants forwarded a letter to the pastor informing him that, as a result of the vote of the congregation, his employment relationship with the church had ended. The pastor asserted that the defendants provided the local police with a copy of the letter to serve as evidence that the pastor had been terminated.
The pastor claimed the defendants worked in concert and collaboration with the police department. The city assigned an off-duty police detail to accompany the defendants to a church meeting on February 9, 2020. The pastor noted that before doing so, neither the city nor police department sought or obtained a warrant to search the church.
When the defendants and police arrived at the church on February 9, 2020, the officers were dressed in their official police uniforms. The pastor claimed the defendants arranged for the church locks to be changed, and to restrict his access to the front entrance of the church (as well as prevent him from entering private areas inside the church, including his office).
According to the pastor, the church’s sound engineer was ordered to cut the microphone when the pastor began speaking to the congregation and the police officers threatened to arrest him “and have him dragged away in handcuffs” if he did not leave the pulpit because he was trespassing on church property.
The pastor agreed to leave and asked the defendants if he could quickly explain to the congregation why he would not be leading the services that day. This request was denied, and police officers then escorted him from the church.
Pastor claimed wrongful dismissal
The pastor filed a lawsuit against the defendants and the police officers, making a variety of claims pertaining to conspiracy and civil rights violations. The lawsuit also included a wrongful dismissal claim against the defendants. The defendants insisted that “multiple reasons existed for the termination of [the pastor].”
The court concluded:
Defendants . . . [assert] that the actions they took with respect to [the pastor] . . . were to save [the church] from financial ruin and foreclosure and not to violate [his] civil rights or participate in a conspiracy against him and, thus, there are no genuine issues of material fact regarding the attempt to terminate [him] and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
However, the court noted that the defendants “provide alternative theories as to why [the pastor] was terminated,” precluding dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims. The court therefore ordered the case to proceed to trial.
What this means for churches
Church leaders should note that this case deviates from the vast majority of court rulings refusing to resolve internal church disputes involving the fitness or tenure of a pastor.
Most courts have concluded that the relationship between a church and its pastor inevitably implicates religious issues that are off limits to the courts due to First Amendment protections.
All courts would agree that attempts by dismissed ministers to challenge their dismissal cannot be adjudicated by the civil courts if doing so would involve interpretation of doctrine or polity, again due to First Amendment considerations.
While the decision by this court made it possible for this case to proceed, it remained to be seen whether a trial court ultimately could resolve this legal dispute without still running afoul of the First Amendment.
Nevertheless, this decision illustrates the caution church leaders must take when contemplating the dismissal of a pastor. The church’s bylaws must be reviewed to determine the proper process for a removal, since a failure to do so could offer a path for a court to decide if a dismissal was properly handled according to the church’s own governing documents.
Additionally, qualified local legal counsel should be consulted before pursuing a termination, both to ensure the church’s governing documents are followed and to ensure other neutral principles of law not invoking church doctrine or polity are correctly handled.
For additional insights on this topic, see the two case studies in “Civil Court Review of Clergy Termination Disputes—Limited Exceptions to the General Rule” in the Legal Library.
Couzens v. City of Forest Park, 2021 WL 2000399 (S.D. Ohio 2021).