DEFAMATION AND EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS WITH PASTORS

The exact line between church and state is in a tidewater subject to ebb and flow. While that is somewhat less true when the Ministerial Exception can be invoked in federal employment civil rights claims, when the employee is a minister, it is still true in that instance as well. The non-lawyer sometimes forgets, as do some lawyers, that the right to contract is enshrined in the Constitution as is the First Amendment right. Balancing these two rights, which are both critical to a free society, is sometimes a matter of mere opinion.

In Turner v Tri-County Baptist Church, 2018 Ohio 4658 (Ohio App. 12th, 2018), the Plaintiff alleged breach of contract and defamation. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit invoking the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The appellate court affirmed by a plurality. The facts stated by the Court were that the Senior Pastor recommended that the Plaintiff retire or accept a part-time position. When the Plaintiff declined the Plaintiff was placed on a “Performance Growth Initiative.” Later, Plaintiff was demoted to part time status. This may have been part of a plan to “counsel out of the business” and thus move Plaintiff to retirement. However, at a congregational meeting, the Plaintiff stated his move to part-time status was involuntary. Believing that was divisive, the Plaintiff was terminated by the church’s governing board. The Court held that Ohio would not extend the Neutral Principles Doctrine beyond church property disputes. Therefore, the Plaintiff’s breach of contract and defamation claims were barred. There was no need for an inquiry into whether entanglement with ecclesiastical matters could be avoided by the Court.

If Courts can be convinced to articulate the bounds of Neutral Principles with this level of clarity, i.e., that the doctrine only applies to church property, then the safe harbor for churches would expand and be predictable. However, the tidal force that may erode the shoreline will be when churches use written employment contracts in such a legal framework. If written church employment contracts were unenforceable altogether then ministers would always face uncertainty in congregational churches or denominational churches that had unclear employment guarantees at the local level. As the dissent in the foregoing case exemplifies, the sanctity of contracts cannot simply be ignored.

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