While it is abundantly clear that courts will not intervene in nearly all claims regarding employment of clergy, the question arises about whether the clergyman (or clergywoman) that loses employment with a secular employer because of the loss of clergy credentials. In that instance, is there a viable claim?
In Iwuchukwu v Archdiocese for the Military, Memorandum Opinion (D. DC, 2022), the Plaintiff was a clergyman but employed by a federal agency and terminated. The employment required the Plaintiff, serving as a chaplain, to have the credentials of clergy without which the employment was summarily terminated. The federal agency was not named as a Defendant. The denomination claimed it revoked the credentials based on an unresolved allegation of sexual misconduct at a prior employment a decade earlier. The Plaintiff submitted a polygraph examination report that seemed to confirm the Plaintiff’s denial of the allegation. Also, some years before this case, the Plaintiff filed a complaint against the federal agency with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging a hostile work environment. Plaintiff claimed revocation of his clergy credentials was in retaliation and had nothing to do with the clergy credentials. In effect, Plaintiff was arguing his claims were reviewable under Neutral Principles of Law. The federal trial court dismissed the case as barred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine because religious organizations could unilaterally decide who would speak for them as clergy. The court also noted the federal employment discrimination statute exempted religious organization employers.
Because many clergymen and clergywomen work in alternative employments with parachurch organizations or even secular entities, the facts presented in the reported case may be less unique than might be expected. For example, many hospitals have chaplains. Clergy that are accused of sexual misconduct are not well served by relying on denominations or parachurch organizations to clear them. Innocent accused clergy have no choice but to immediately seek a judicial declaration of innocence if reputable counsel believes there is a reasonable chance for a favorable outcome, or expect the loss of their former career.