LAY MEMBER IMMUNITY – SORT OF

The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception limit secular court intrusion into church employment decisions regarding ministers and other employees.  While it is generally the limitations on employment law protection of “other employees” about which the courts struggle, it is possible for these doctrines to limit or preclude other claims.  For example, can a pastor fired by a church or denomination sue, rather than the church or denomination, a member of their church regarding their role in the loss of employment?

In Father Jim Tracy v O’Bell, et al, Slip Op. (Pa. Supp. 2021) an intermediate appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the lay members sued by the former pastor.  The former pastor alleged that alleged tortious interference with his employment contract was the goal of the defamation by the lay member defendants.  The Plaintiff alleged the defendants defamed him with the intent of causing the church to terminate his employment.  Plaintiff claimed he found a large amount of cash in a file cabinet and the lay members claimed the Plaintiff was not financially responsible with church funds.  The church terminated the Plaintiff.  But, the Plaintiff did not sue the church, but rather sued the lay members the Plaintiff claimed defamed him in their alleged plot to secure his termination.  The trial court was affirmed because the alleged defamatory claims of the lay members, and the allegedly connected firing, were intertwined with the ecclesiastical decision to terminate a clergyman.  The termination decision was made by the church and court inquiry into that decision to determine if it was, indeed, based on the defamation would entangle the court in ecclesiastical governance.

While in the reported case the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, in order to keep the court out of ecclesiastical church governance, had the effect of immunizing lay members the assumption should not be made that it will do so frequently or reliably.  Lay members, even in congregational rather than hierarchical churches, may not be able to defame each other with impunity even if as to the employment of a pastor they might.  Likewise, churches and denominations that do not manage such internal disputes, even if litigation would be ineffectual, may find that there are other consequences and ripple effects, such as to offering plates.

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