In our reports we often mention the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The Doctrine is a subset of the protections afforded by the First Amendment. Essentially, the Doctrine enforces the First Amendment’s prohibition of “law respecting an establishment of religion.” One of the other shorthand expressions of the Doctrine not used as much is the “Church Autonomy Doctrine” (“CAD”). CAD usually arises in cases involving hierarchical churches that internally adjudicate their own internal disputes. Once a hierarchical church has through its own process decided a dispute involving its own members, its own property, and its own personnel, CAD prevents the dispute from being heard in a secular court.
In Catholic Diocese of Jackson v De Lange, Slip Op. (Miss., En Banc, 2022), the state trial court refused to dismiss the case holding the state law employment termination claims of the Plaintiff could be decided by application of secular legal principles. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the case. The Plaintiff was the Chief Financial Officer of the diocese. The position was enshrined in the formal Canon Law of the denomination. Termination prior to the end of a five-year term had to be based only on “grave cause.” The Plaintiff appealed his termination through the hierarchical system, was placed on administrative leave, but his termination was ultimately implemented. Plaintiff alleged in court the termination was wrongful because the reasons for termination were false, defamatory, and did not constitute “grave cause” as required by Canon Law. The appellate court held that to determine whether the reasons for termination were sufficient “grave causes” would require inquiry into the church doctrine that defined “grave causes” in Canon Law. Such an inquiry would violate the Autonomy Doctrine, the court held.
The Ministerial Exception was not an issue in the reported case because the wrongful termination claim was not based on federal or state anti-discrimination laws. Also, whether a Chief Financial Officer would be considered a “minister” was not a question reached. Thus, the case reported was narrowly focused on the scope of church autonomy in employment matters. In most states, churches will preserve their autonomy in employment matters by documenting carefully that all church employment is “at will” and avoiding employment contracts that might be used to thwart the At Will Doctrine.