The exact line between church and state is in a tidewater subject to ebb and flow. While that is somewhat less true when the Ministerial Exception can be invoked in federal employment civil rights claims, when the employee is a minister, it is still true in that instance as well. The non-lawyer sometimes forgets, as do some lawyers, that the right to contract is enshrined in the Constitution as is the First Amendment right. Balancing these two rights, which are both critical to a free society, is sometimes a matter of mere opinion.
In Turner v Tri-County Baptist Church, 2018 Ohio 4658 (Ohio App. 12th, 2018), the Plaintiff alleged breach of contract and defamation. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit invoking the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The appellate court affirmed by a plurality. The facts stated by the Court were that the Senior Pastor recommended that the Plaintiff retire or accept a part-time position. When the Plaintiff declined the Plaintiff was placed on a “Performance Growth Initiative.” Later, Plaintiff was demoted to part time status. This may have been part of a plan to “counsel out of the business” and thus move Plaintiff to retirement. However, at a congregational meeting, the Plaintiff stated his move to part-time status was involuntary. Believing that was divisive, the Plaintiff was terminated by the church’s governing board. The Court held that Ohio would not extend the Neutral Principles Doctrine beyond church property disputes. Therefore, the Plaintiff’s breach of contract and defamation claims were barred. There was no need for an inquiry into whether entanglement with ecclesiastical matters could be avoided by the Court.
If Courts can be convinced to articulate the bounds of Neutral Principles with this level of clarity, i.e., that the doctrine only applies to church property, then the safe harbor for churches would expand and be predictable. However, the tidal force that may erode the shoreline will be when churches use written employment contracts in such a legal framework. If written church employment contracts were unenforceable altogether then ministers would always face uncertainty in congregational churches or denominational churches that had unclear employment guarantees at the local level. As the dissent in the foregoing case exemplifies, the sanctity of contracts cannot simply be ignored.
Negligent hiring and negligent supervision claims arise when an employer is on actual notice, or by reasonable minimum inquiry should have been, that the employee represents a risk of harm. In the church setting, that risk is almost always sexually vulnerable teenagers or children in general. A church will generally not be held liable for the actions of a rogue employee absent actual notice of the risk. Generally, that actual notice would include a prior bad act or an unresolved allegation of a prior bad act. It is often amazing how trusting and naïve church leadership can be in such matters. Platitudes about forgiveness and redemption are not defenses. Only very extensive proof of rehabilitation after a prior bad act, proof of repentance in the parlance of some, might be a defense. However, there are many that believe, with or without scientific support, that from a prior bad act of sexual misconduct by an adult with a child (anyone below the age of lawful consent) there is no coming back. Some of those people may make it on to a jury or even the bench.
In Bourque v Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, NC, Slip Op. (NC App. 2018), the church was accused of negligent hiring and negligent supervision of a seminarian that acted as a youth minister that also allegedly had sexual relations with a fourteen year old parishioner. The sexual misconduct allegedly continued after the seminarian left the seminary and was taken in by the family of the victim while the seminarian developed a new life path. The reason for departure from the seminary is not reported. Clearly, consent was not an issue because the fourteen year old could not consent and was raped if the sexual conduct occurred as alleged. The church appealed the refusal of the trial court to dismiss the case on Ecclesiastical Exception grounds. The appellate court affirmed the trial court and held that neutral principles of law governed the claim of negligent supervision. If the church was on actual notice of the risk represented by the alleged wrongdoer, what the church knew was not detailed in the opinion, it could be liable. The appellate court, however, did order dismissal of the negligent hiring claim if it was based on a failure to train.
Attempting to terminate a lawsuit on a motion to dismiss in most jurisdictions is an uphill slog at best. In most jurisdictions, motions to dismiss are strictly limited as to tort claims. Negligent hiring claims and negligent supervision claims will not be viable as to ministry performance issues but will likely be viable as to sexual molestation claims. Too many churches still fail to be wary about the issue.