TORTIOUS INTERFERENCE WITH CHURCH CONTRACTS

As lawsuits become more acceptable to churches as a means of enforcing their rights among themselves, secular legal theories are more often asserted. In struggles between denominations and their local churches or parachurch organizations, there are often contracts about which one or all parties will allege a breach of contract. Less often but becoming more common is the claim that a religious organization interfered with a contract.

In Samara Iglesia Evangelica, Inc. v Lorenzo, Order on Cross Motions for Summary Judgment and Motion to Strike (D Mass., 2019) the federal trial court sorted out a struggle between a denomination and its local church and the local church pastors. The denomination alleged the local church pastors were contractually bound not to alienate the property of the local church without authorization. When the local church and its pastors decided to terminate their relationship with the denomination, they transferred the property from the local church to a new church unaffiliated with the denomination. However, unlike more established denominations, the deed only named the local church as the owner which allowed the local church to transfer the deed to the new church without hinderance. Also, the governing documents of the local church did not grant the denomination any rights in the local church governance or property. The contracts with the local pastors, however, stated no definite duration which made the contracts terminable at will by either party. The local pastors resigned from the contracts. Those resignations terminated the contracts leaving no contract with which to interfere tortuously or otherwise.

From the denomination’s perspective, the error made was the failure to engage counsel to amend and update local church governing documents and deeds as well as denominational governing documents since the 1970s. The law has changed substantially since then. Also, religious promissory language is generally not enforceable in a court in the United States. Explicit contractual promises must be made, typically in writing signed by all parties. The employment contracts of pastors must be of a definite duration even if they automatically renew for a new term if not terminated at the anniversary date, or they will be “at will” employment contracts in most states. Venue and applicable selection clauses will prevent legal battles from always being fought in the location of the local church rather than in the location of the denominational headquarters.

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