CAN THE CHURCH LADY BE FIRED?

In those states that recognize the employment at will doctrine, church employees have no greater rights than secular employees without an employment contract.  In other words, the employee can depart their employment at any time and the employer can terminate the employment at any time.  While in secular employment protected classes of employees might have certain legal protections from terminations based on their characteristics, such as race or ethnicity, even these protections do not apply to church employees that have religious duties.

In a legal proceeding involving the Pastor, an “administrative employee” of the church testified in court.  Other church leaders present heard the testimony and terminated the employee shortly thereafter.  The employee commenced a wrongful termination action alleging the termination violated public policy which, if it existed, protected the employee from termination based on court testimony.  In Heidorn v Chelten Church, Slip Op. (Pa. Super. Ct., 2016), the court affirmed dismissal of the case by the trial court because the court found no such public policy.  That the motive for termination might have been retaliation for testimony was not enough to inspire a new public policy.

The opinion does not provide details about the testimony of the fired church employee or the legal proceeding involving the Pastor.  Thus, it seemed that such details, no matter what they were, would not have caused the court to create such a public policy or to extend it so far as to abrogate the at will doctrine.  The at will doctrine is a general employment doctrine, i.e., not related only to churches, so this opinion might apply to most secular employers as well.

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