Category: church discipline

THE RETURN OF THE PICTURE

We reported the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in McRaney v North American Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, 996 F3d 346 (5th Cir. 2020), cert. denied, 210 L ED 2d 961, 141 S Ct 2852 (2021).  The Plaintiff was formerly employed as the Executive Director of the General Mission Board of Maryland / Delaware.  The Plaintiff alleged the Defendant made false statements about him that caused him to be fired from his position, caused him to be “uninvited” to speak at a large mission symposium, and posted a picture of him at the Defendant’s offices to malign him.  The trial court dismissed the case on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds but the 5th Circuit reversed the dismissal.  The only theories of recovery espoused were for intentional interference with business relationships, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  There was no employment claim made that might implicate the Ministerial Exception.  We noted on remand there might be discovery.

In McRaney v North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Inc., Order Reconsidering Quashing of Subpoena (ND Miss. 2022), the federal trial court on remand vacated its order quashing the Defendant’s subpoena to the Plaintiff’s former employer to obtain the personnel file and other documents.  The trial court did so based on the opinion of the 5th Circuit that the dismissal of the case on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds was premature.  The trial court allowed the subpoena to be reissued and allowed the former employer to respond as they might to any subpoena seeking those types of documents.

If the evidence produced in response to the subpoena, if any is produced, proves the termination of Plaintiff was, indeed, based on ecclesiastical or church disciplinary policies, it may result in dismissal of the case a second time.  It may also prove the termination of Plaintiff by the employer was caused, or not caused, by the actions of the Defendant.  Employers must be rational in their creation of termination records and not let the angst or emotion of the moment cloud the record.  The termination record should be documented under the supervision of counsel when the sensitive nature of the Plaintiff’s position, apparently as a sort of chief executive officer, seems to require an especially accurate record.

CHURCH RETIREMENT PLANS IN BANKRUPTCY

Few ministers can keep the loyalty of a modern-day congregation more than a few years.  Staff members are more likely to have longevity.  Thus, the question of whether a retirement plan will actually apply in a bankruptcy is likely to be rare.  Nevertheless, it can happen.

In the case of Re:  Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Memorandum and Opinion (ED BR La. 2022), the federal bankruptcy court faced an objection from a creditors committee as to the pre-petition retirement benefits owed to five priests.  The retirement plan was an obligation arising under Canon Law.  There was a monthly “maintenance” stipend and medical benefits.  The five priests were not on the Credibly Accused List.  During document discovery in the case, documents were produced from which the creditors committee claimed the five priests were credibly accused.  The Archdiocese objected on procedural grounds but did not protest against the allegation the five priests were credibly accused.  The Archdiocese previously consented not to pay retired priests already on the Credibly Accused List.  The bankruptcy court amended the Wages & Benefits Order previously entered to exclude payments to the five priests.

The management of a debtor in possession is particularly difficult, but management of a church or denominational level unit seems likely to be more difficult even than that.  Because the amount of the payments contemplated in the reported case were not stated in the opinion, it is difficult to know whether the economics justified the relief sought.  Other factors may have been involved. 

PARACHURCH ORGANIZATION BENEFITS DISCRIMINATION

During the lifetime of this writer and many readers, even churches have been subject to cosmic and cataclysmic changes.  Women universally wore hats and gloves to every and all worship services and men wore coats and ties.  Divorced people were pariahs.  Now, in very few churches is there any dress code, formal or informal, and most want people to “come as you are.”  Divorced people now have the same representation in church populations as in the community.  Divorced people are no longer excluded from all church leadership positions.  Women were rarely seen in church leadership or ministry positions but the opposite is now true.  Even in denominations that limit the roles of women, those limitations are shrinking.  Likewise, the issue of gay rights is now moving churches through the same sort of upheavals.  Indeed, denominations are literally splitting over the issue.  The report that follows and the commentary at the end reflect perceptions of the legal issues only and is not a commentary on moral issues or religious doctrine.

In Doe v Catholic Relief Services, Memorandum (D. Maryland, 2022), the Plaintiff, a data analyst employed by the parachurch organization, sought health benefits for his same sex spouse which the employer ultimately refused to provide.  The Defendant was characterized by the federal trial court as a “social services nonprofit” employing 7,000.  The court noted it was “constituted” by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  The Defendant binds its employees to a Code of Conduct and Ethics “informed by the teachings of the church.”  The “human resource materials” disclose that benefits offered to employees are administered “consistent with Catholic values.”  The Plaintiff was given a promotion and additional salary thought to be sufficient to cover the cost of private purchase of health benefits for Plaintiff’s spouse.  The Defendant sought to dismiss the case invoking the Church Autonomy Doctrine.  The federal trial court rejected the argument by holding the court could decide the issue under neutral principles of law and need not inquire into church doctrine regarding employment of a data analyst.  The federal trial court denied that the Title VII prohibition of applicability of the statute to religious organizations applied to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but only to employment of “co-religionists.”  The trial court denied the Religious Freedom of Restoration Act applied to anything other than when government is an actor, so it did not apply to the case.  The federal trial court denied that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment did not apply to federal employment discrimination statutes because prohibition of sex discrimination was neutral and only incidentally burdens religious exercise.  The federal trial court held the Defendant violated the federal Equal Pay Act because the same sex spouse was treated differently than non-same sex spouses.  The federal trial court decided to leave to a future jury the question of damages but precluded punitive damages because of the “uncertainty of the scope of the religious exemption” and the Defendant’s attempt albeit unsuccessful attempt to arrive at a bargained resolution.

The parachurch organization’s abandonment of its own Code of Conduct and Ethics “informed by the teachings of the church” led it to the slippery slope where it could not bargain its way out of the dispute and it had to litigate it in a federal court that thought the statutory exemption, much less the First Amendment, applied only to employment of “co-religionists,” a term the court opinion reported above used three times.  As the parachurch organization ultimately learned, no good deed goes unpunished.  Terminate the employee or do not based on the Code.  If not, do not fiddle with benefits, parking spaces, promotions or anything else in order to try to give lip service to an abandoned policy, religious or otherwise.

CHURCH INTERNAL INVESTIGATION IMMUNITY

It took the Texas courts substantial effort to work through to find the edges between Texas tort law and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The legal culture of Texas, that there should be a remedy for every wrong and that everyone should have access to the Texas courts, is strongly engrained.  Fitting the edges of that absolute to the edges of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was difficult both legally and culturally.  Other states have had similar angst.

In July 2021, we reported on the seemingly terminal disposition of the issue by the Texas Supreme Court in In Re Diocese of Lubbock (II), 624 SW3d 506 (Tex. 2021), cert. denied, 142 S. Ct. 434 (2021).  The Texas Supreme Court invoked the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and ordered the case dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.  Essentially, the rule that evolved was “[b]ecause courts are prohibited from risking judicial entanglement with ecclesiastical matters, if the substance and nature of the plaintiff’s claims are inextricably intertwined with matters of doctrine or church governance, then the case must be dismissed.” (quoting the case reported on in this article, at 11).

In Heras v Diocese of Corpus Christi, Slip Op. (Tex. App. 13th, Corpus Christi 2022), the dismissal on jurisdictional grounds of the Plaintiffs’ defamation tort action was held in abeyance on appeal until the Texas Supreme Court ruled as noted in July and summarized above.  The appeal was reactivated and the trial court’s dismissal was affirmed.  The appellate court began their analysis with a review of the holdings in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, 140 S.Ct. 2049 (2020) and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  The appellate court held “[h]ere, appellants impermissibly seek to impose liability on appellees for compliance with an internal church instruction of openness and transparency.”  Compliance with the “internal church instruction” by investigation and public disclosure was not within the jurisdiction of the Texas courts to address.