In the first published decision of 2021 that meets our criteria for reporting, we are confronted with some familiar facts and some new ones. As the history of the last two decades has made clear, retaliation against whistleblowers by church leadership is often a path to escalating accusations and finally legal consequences possibly out of proportion to the fault of the church.
In Rehfield v Diocese of Joliet, Slip Op. (ILL., 2021), the Plaintiff was a church school principal. A parent allegedly sent threatening emails to a teacher that resulted in a report to the pastor and eventually law enforcement. The conduct was admonished but allegedly the parent escalated the communications that led to an arrest warrant. The principal was allegedly instructed by the church not to alert other parents about the conduct of the errant parent. However, when the photo of the parent was circulated to alert faculty and staff persons unknown leaked it to news media. The news media report induced other parents to be upset they were not likewise notified. The church terminated the employment of the principal but continued to pay her pursuant to her written employment contracts. The opinion did not indicate a reason for termination from the record before the Court. The plaintiff sued alleging a retaliatory discharge and violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act. The trial court dismissed the case, the intermediate appellate court affirmed and the Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed. The retaliatory discharge claim was dismissed because the claim was only available to “at will” employees and not contract employees like Plaintiff. The Whistleblower Act case was dismissed because the claim was held barred by the Ministerial Exception of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine arising from the First Amendment. The Illinois Supreme Court relied on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n, 565 U.S. 171 (2012) and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U.S. ___, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020), both reported herein, regarding the analysis of the issue of whether the principal was a ministerial employee. The Illinois Supreme Court held the principal was a ministerial employee because the evidentiary record below was uncontradicted.
Because the church reportedly paid out the employment contract of the principal, which may have resulted in full pay for a school year beyond the termination, the monetary damages claim would have been somewhat muted if the claim had been allowed to proceed. In any event, the more important issue is that whistleblower claims by employees classified as ministerial by the evidence in the case are likely barred. Certainly, because history has shown that schoolteachers may be held to be ministers, school principals seem more likely to be. As history has also shown, churches that strike down whistleblowers may face societal condemnation.