Church governance documents, employee handbooks, and employment contracts (when used) are often cloned from commercial counterparts or internet search finds. Original draftsmanship is often by non-lawyers that include religious doctrines or language but does not necessarily achieve the desired interpretation. Forms obtained from sources knowledgeable in one jurisdiction may not be effective in another.
In Rehfield v Diocese of Joliet, Slip Op. (ILL App. 2019), the church school principal was relieved of duty but her contracts were paid out. Nevertheless, the Plaintiff sued alleging retaliatory discharge and violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act. The case was dismissed because the trial court held the principal’s job description clearly made her position sufficiently ecclesiastical to invoke the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The job description required “a commitment to nurturing the [denominational] Identity of the school.” The job description also included, in pertinent part:
“providing an atmosphere in the school which is identifiably [denominational];
“developing and participating in ongoing programs to insure religious and professional growth of the staff;
“establishing an instructional program which includes religious education to meet the needs of students; [and]
“assisting teachers in achieving the goals of [denominational] education through supervision and classroom visitation.”
Church schools, churches, and parachurch organizations should review their employment agreements, handbooks and corporate bylaws annually to assure that their job descriptions are consistent with mission of the organization as well as the operational needs that may be similar to secular entities. Legal counsel should usually be engaged to assist. Overstatement of religious identity is not necessary and may, indeed, harm credibility in a dispute. After all, a janitorial employee may not have religious duties. Nevertheless, religious identity should be clearly stated in the job description of every professional employee.