In decades past, denominational doctrines often seemed established, immutable, and immoral to oppose. Denominational doctrines seem to be challenged, and in some cases abandoned or revised, in growing numbers. Whether in the distant future these changes will be viewed as aberrational or merely a form of maturation remains for others to determine. Opposing denominational doctrines in court has always faced the all but insurmountable barriers of the First Amendment: the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine (doctrine), the Church Autonomy Doctrine (governance) and the Ministerial Exception (“ministry” employment).
In Payne-Elliott v Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., Slip Op. (Ind. 2022), the Supreme Court of Indiana affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The Court concluded the plaintiff pled himself out of court by pleading facts that established the Church Autonomy Doctrine defense. The opinion reported the Plaintiff’s same sex marriage led to two different results. The Plaintiff’s spouse was an elementary school teacher at a Catholic elementary school. The elementary school refused to terminate the spouse. The archdiocese removed the school from the denomination. The archdiocese ordered the Catholic high school employing the Plaintiff to terminate Plaintiff and they did so. Apparently, the high school entered a financial settlement with the Plaintiff. However, the case continued against the archdiocese. The Supreme Court of Indiana set forth the elements of the Church Autonomy Doctrine affirmative defense as prohibiting a court from penalizing via tort law a communication among church officials on a matter of internal church policy (i.e., governance) that does not culminate in a criminal act. Because the Plaintiff pled that the Catholic high school was commanded by the denomination to terminate Plaintiff due to Catholic doctrine, the Church Autonomy Doctrine elements were held satisfied resulting in dismissal.
While the legal outcome of the reported case was not surprising, we have reported many similar decisions and few exceptions, the reported case was startling because of its “Birdseye view” of denominational doctrinal slippage. A Catholic school stopped being a Catholic school. Another Catholic school paid a settlement to avoid further litigation. Only the denomination continued until the case was concluded. Only future generations of church members will be able to judge whether choices like these were reached following immutable doctrine or reflecting changing doctrine.
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.
Churches are typically volunteer organizations with a few paid leaders and usually a greater number of unpaid leaders. Over the years or decades, as people come and go from these positions, without accurate records, identification of the correct and complete version of the governing document in force might become problematic. It can be a crucial question.
In Nation Ford Baptist Church, Inc. v Davis, 2022-NCSC-98 (NC 2022), the trial court and intermediate court of appeals denied the motion to dismiss of the church based on church autonomy grounds and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The pastor was terminated by the church board. The pastor alleged the correct version of the bylaws required a congregational vote and did not authorize the board to act unilaterally. The church alleged that the correct version in effect did give the board unilateral authority to terminate the pastor. The church also alleged the letter agreement employing the pastor expressly stated the employment was “at will.” The pastor alleged the correct version of the bylaws was submitted by the church as an attachment to a bank loan application. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court and intermediate appellate court’s denial of the motion to dismiss by the church as to some theories and not as to others. The search for the correct version of bylaws was held to be an issue that could be resolved applying Neutral Principles of Law. The demand for reinstatement, however, could not be. The effect of the letter agreement was left to the trial court to determine, if it could be, using Neutral Principles of Law.
Churches that periodically, annually or bi-annually, confirm the version of the governing document in effect in their official meeting minutes avoid the scenario in the reported case. Prior versions should in official meeting minutes be officially disavowed as in effect. In the reported case, the Supreme Court noted the allegation that the congregation dwindled in size under the former pastor by 60%.
In a large church, the music ministry might be led by a “minister of music.” Such a leader might have a staff that includes choir directors tasked with creating and leading certain types of choirs for various events and services. In some churches, the “choir director” may still have that title but in actuality be the minister of music, or the minister of music in certain situations. In all churches, it is unlikely to find a choir director without significant duties in worship services as well as related events.
In Martin v SS Columbia Brigid Catholic Church, Order on Motions to Dismiss (WD NY 2022), the federal trial court dismissed the federal employment law and state law case of a choir director. The church moved for dismissal based on the Ministerial Exception to federal employment laws and state law claims. The Plaintiff alleged the title “choir director” was not a ministerial position. However, the Plaintiff acknowledged she would be “perceived as a religious leader” because her duties encompassed a “significant religious dimension” that appeared to be her “primary function.”
This Court did not review employee handbooks or any contractual documents because the case was at the pleading stage at which a motion to dismiss became the vehicle for dismissal. The Court’s opinion was based solely on the allegations in the complaint filed by the Plaintiff which the Court had to treat as true as long as the allegations were plausible.