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Court Barred from Deciding Pastor’s Breach of Contract Claim

Why one state appellate court said it couldn’t wade into the aftermath of a church’s poorly handled internal investigation.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

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.

An Illinois state appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed pastor’s lawsuit against his denomination seeking damages for breach of contract and interference with economic advantage.

It began with a serious accusation

A Protestant denomination (the “National Church”) credentialed a pastor (the “plaintiff”) in 1989 and ordained him in 2004. Plaintiff served as the pastor of a congregation (the “Local Church”) affiliated with the National Church.

In January 2017, an individual whom plaintiff and his spouse cared for as a child accused plaintiff of sexual assault during the 1970s. Plaintiff informed the National Church of these allegations.

In early June 2017, the National Church informed plaintiff that he was suspended and not allowed to preach, teach, or attend church. Plaintiff's suspension forced the Local Church to find and employ a different pastor.

In late June 2017, plaintiff met with the National Church's Board of Ordered Ministry at the National Church’s annual meeting to discuss the allegations against him. After this meeting, the National Church upheld plaintiff's suspension. Throughout the remainder of 2017, plaintiff frequently contacted the National Church “to inquire as to the status and progress of the investigation and when he could expect his suspension to be lifted.”

The National Church did not respond.

In April 2018, the National Church asked plaintiff for permission to contact his accuser. In June 2018, plaintiff again met with the Board of Ordered Ministry at the National annual meeting. The National Church acknowledged that the accusations against plaintiff were malicious and that the investigation had been carelessly handled.

The National Church’s executive director wrote to plaintiff stating that the National Church lacked “care and due process” when investigating the allegations against plaintiff.

The National Church lifted plaintiff's suspension on June 27, 2018. Nevertheless, the Local Church declined to reinstate plaintiff under the same terms and conditions of his previous employment. As of 2020, plaintiff was still not serving in a pastoral position.

Church bylaws allow for suspension pending investigation

The National Church’s bylaws provide that the annual meeting is “the highest deliberative and decision-making body of” the denomination, and that “there shall be one regular session of the Annual Meeting each year.”

The Board of Ordered Ministry, which reports to the annual meeting, “has general supervision over all ordained and licensed ministers ... including their ordination, license, commission, consecration, standing, and discipline, and the maintenance of high standards in their ministry.”

The National Church’s Rules for the Ordered Ministry provide that a “minister ... may be charged with indiscretion, immorality, doctrinal error, unethical behavior, or disloyalty to [the denomination]. Upon referral of charges to the Board, it shall assume responsibility to ascertain the validity of such charges and take appropriate action.” A minister may be disciplined by the Board by “temporary suspension of ministerial or missionary credentials and removal from ministerial functions, while charges are being investigated.”

Similarly, “in the case of a serious offense, a minister or missionary’s credentials may be temporarily suspended. ... After investigation, the Board shall determine the kind of discipline required.”

Pastor sued for breach of contract, intentional interference with economic advantage

In 2020, plaintiff sued the National Church for breach of contract and intentional interference with economic advantage.

The breach of contract claim alleged that the National Church’s bylaws constituted a contract between the parties, and that the National Church breached that contract because, when it “completed its investigation and found no basis for the charges nor any basis for discipline, plaintiff should have been returned to his parish and prior position under the same terms as his previous employment.”

The intentional interference claim alleged that, “in conducting an unreasonably slow and ineffective investigation of allegations against plaintiff, and in keeping plaintiff in a suspended status for an unreasonably lengthy period of time, the National Church intentionally and maliciously interfered with plaintiff’s economic expectancy and caused a breach of his employment with [the Local Church].”

The National Church asked the court to dismiss the case. It argued that under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and the ministerial exception, the court did not have jurisdiction “to determine whether or how [the National Church] followed its own rules of ministerial investigation and discipline.” The National Church also argued that plaintiff failed to state claims for breach of contract and intentional interference with economic advantage.

In response, plaintiff argued that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not bar his claims because the court could resolve them by applying neutral principles of law to determine whether the National Church violated its own rules and bylaws. Plaintiff also contended that he adequately stated claims of breach of contract and intentional interference with economic advantage.

On April 15, 2021, the trial court granted the National Church’s motion and dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiff timely appealed.

Appellate court: Ecclesiastical privilege holds sway

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting the National Church’s motion to dismiss. It acknowledged that

“The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine provides that ‘civil courts may not determine the correctness of interpretations of canonical text or some decisions relating to government of the religious polity; rather, a court must accept as given whatever the religious entity decides.’” (quoting Duncan v. Peterson, 408 Ill.App.3d 911, 915 (2010)). That is,

“‘… where resolution of a dispute cannot be made without extensive inquiry by civil courts into religious law and polity, the First and Fourteenth Amendments mandate that civil courts shall not disturb the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal within a church of a hierarchical polity, but must accept such decisions as binding on them.’” (quoting Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America & Canada v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976)).

However, ecclesiastical abstention is not an absolute bar to courts deciding disputes involving religious organizations. Where neutral, objective, and well-established principles of law familiar to lawyers and judges can be applied and there is no danger of “‘entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice,’” the First Amendment does not bar a civil court from resolving the case. (quoting Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979). Under this “neutral principles of law” approach, a court “may examine pertinent charters, constitutions, bylaws, deeds, state statutes, and any other evidence to resolve the dispute in the same way it would a secular dispute.” [again quoting Jones v. Wolf].

Therefore, the court reasoned, it must first determine the subject of a dispute, and “[i]f it involves matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule or law, then abstention is required regardless of whether neutral principles or law could adjudicate the matter.”

But, if a “dispute does not involve one of these subjects, then the circuit court may hear the case only if the issues can be determined using neutral principles of law without interfering with matters of church discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.”

The court concluded:

There is no dispute that [the National Church] is a church and that its rules and bylaws applied to plaintiff as an ordained minister. The essence of plaintiff’s complaint is that the National Church’s internal investigation of his alleged sexual misconduct was unreasonably slow and unfair and that he was not returned to [the Local Church] once his suspension was lifted.

Plaintiff self-reported the allegations of sexual misconduct to the National Church and met with its Board of Ordained Ministry twice at its annual meetings to discuss those allegations. The Board suspended plaintiff, investigated the allegations against him between the 2017 and 2018 annual meetings, and then lifted his suspension. According to defendant’s rules, the Board of Ordained Ministry had the exclusive power to investigate charges against plaintiff and take appropriate action once those charges were referred to the Board. ...

Plaintiff’s claims arise from a wholly internal investigation and suspension conducted by his church. Plaintiff’s claims are inexorably intertwined with the National Church's investigation as to whether he was fit to serve as a pastor, given the accusation of sexual misconduct against him.

That is, the substance of plaintiff’s complaint relates to internal matters of church governance and discipline. Ecclesiastical abstention is required because this case necessarily involves matters of internal discipline. It is irrelevant whether the dispute could be resolved by a court’s interpretation of the National Church’s bylaws because, no matter how egregiously it may have departed from proper investigatory procedures, the subject matter of the dispute makes abstention compulsory.

The court added:

We recognize that the charge of sexual misconduct against plaintiff concerned events that allegedly occurred before he became a pastor. However, public policy favors religious organizations taking allegations of sexual abuse against their clergy seriously and investigating them thoroughly, regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred.

Moreover, different religious organizations may have different views regarding what constitutes fitness to serve as clergy. We cannot review such decisions without violating the First Amendment by approving some views and rejecting others. Thus, because plaintiff’s complaint directly challenged the National Church’s internal investigative and disciplinary procedures, the court lacked jurisdiction and properly dismissed the case. ...

This case is limited to the issue of whether the plaintiff overcame the ecclesiastical privilege to establish a breach of contract or intentional interference with economic advantage claim. He did not.

What this means for churches

This case is relevant to church leaders for at least two reasons.

First, the court ruled that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, a judicially created legal doctrine based upon the First Amendment, does not bar the civil courts from resolving all internal church disputes but rather only those that involve “matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule or law.”

If an internal church dispute does not involve such matters, then a court is not required to abstain from intervening. The court explained:

Ecclesiastical abstention is not an absolute bar to courts deciding disputes involving religious organizations.

Where neutral, objective, and well-established principles of law familiar to lawyers and judges can be applied and there is no danger of entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice the First Amendment does not bar a civil court from resolving the case.

The plaintiff insisted that this was just such a case. The court disagreed, noting that if an internal church dispute involves “matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule or law, then abstention is required regardless of whether neutral principles or law could adjudicate the matter. ... But, if a dispute “does not involve one of these subjects, then the court may hear the case ... if the issues can be determined using neutral principles of law without interfering with matters of church discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.”

Ecclesiastical abstention was required in this case because it necessarily involved matters of internal discipline. The court concluded that “it is irrelevant whether the dispute could be resolved by a court’s interpretation of the National Church’s bylaws because, no matter how egregiously it may have departed from proper investigatory procedures, the subject matter of the dispute makes abstention compulsory.”

Second, the court acknowledged that the charges of sexual misconduct against the plaintiff concerned events that occurred before he became a pastor. However, the court concluded that “public policy favors religious organizations taking allegations of sexual abuse against their clergy seriously and investigating them thoroughly, regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred.”

Church leaders should bear this in mind when faced with charges of sexual misconduct against a minister or other staff member that occurred in the past. As this case illustrates, a refusal to investigate and adjudicate such cases because they occurred in the distant past is a dangerous response.

2022 IL App. 210524 (Ill. App. 2022)

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Posted:
  • October 4, 2022

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