While the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception are both clearly understood with regard to churches and denominational organizations, the question whether and how far those doctrines radiate away from churches to para-church organizations seems perennial and persistent. For example, is a Bible College, seminary, or similar training school for ministers, pastors, priests and other clergy out of the reach of civil courts? If yes, just how far outside of the reach of civil courts are they? Some courts seem to be intent on using a microscope to study the boundary between the inside of these doctrines and their outer perimeters. But, not so Ohio.
In John Doe v Pontifical College Josephinum, Slip Op. (Ohio App. 2017), Mr. Doe was a year from graduating with a Masters in Theology from a school that trained students for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Mr. Doe was dismissed from the school for sexual conduct and his dismissal was the subject of a posted notice on the campus. The dismissal was part of the school’s disciplinary process.
Mr. Doe’s lawsuit was dismissed because the court held the claims of Mr. Doe were inextricably intertwined in the disciplinary process which the court held was shielded under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. While that decision was not “news,” Mr. Doe claimed the school breached its contract with him as set forth in the school policies and handbooks regarding access to his records and violated federal educational privacy law by posting the notice. He wanted to use his records in a canon law appeal. The court dismissed these claims, too, because the court in order to hear these claims could not avoid reviewing the disciplinary process to determine if the notice arose from the ecclesiastically driven disciplinary process. Mr. Doe demanded money damages alleging the school was unjustly enriched by being allowed to keep his tuition and fees but the court dismissed the claim because in order to determine whether there was unjust enrichment would require inquiry into the disciplinary decision’s ecclesiastical validity.