CHURCH MEMBERSHIP LITIGATION

The word “excommunication” labels a procedure by which an ecclesiastical authority under canon law terminates the membership, affiliation or fellowship of someone formerly welcome to those relationships. See, Broderick, Ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Nelson, 1987) at 204. Evangelical churches do not have “excommunication” although they may use the word to describe their own procedure for terminating membership typically for disciplinary reasons. More often, whether in ecumenical or evangelical churches, sometimes pestilential people are simply asked to leave and not return to a particular congregation rather than “excommunicated” from the faith. Sometimes in incipient church splits, one side will try to boot out the opposition.

In Lippard v Diamond Hill Baptist Church, Slip Op. (NC App. 2018), the Plaintiffs’ membership in the church was terminated by a congregational vote. The Plaintiffs claimed the vote never really happened and was not conducted, it if happened at all, according to the bylaws of the church. The trial court dismissed the case because in North Carolina, there are clear judicial pronouncements that membership is a “core ecclesiastical matter.” The Court of Appeals affirmed. While for many purposes the bylaws might be matters for application of neutral principles of law, membership qualification or disqualification pursuant to bylaws would not, the Court concluded, be free of ecclesiastical considerations.

Churches should annually recertify their official membership rolls without fail by a vote of their governing board recorded in the board’s minutes. If a church decides that termination of membership is the only recourse for disciplinary or other important reasons, the church should decisively and quickly implement the termination. Dithering about such things, especially in public meetings, is an invitation to litigation.

CHURCH SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

Courts only have authority to the extent of their jurisdiction. If something, someone, or someplace is outside of their jurisdiction, then the court is powerless to proceed for or against that entity. Some states hold that their courts have no subject matter jurisdiction over church governance issues and tend toward almost automatic dismissal of such claims. Generally, the claims are employment claims or church leadership issues. Some states hold that their courts have subject matter jurisdiction but the church may raise the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine as an affirmative defense. As an affirmative defense, the church must prove that the issue raised by the plaintiff’s claims require delving into ecclesiastical matters rather than neutral principles of law, e.g., contract claims.

In Gilmore v Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, Slip Op. (unpublished) (Mich. App. 2018), the appellate court reversed summary judgment for the church. The trial court dismissed the case on the ground the issue presented was a church governance issue. The plaintiff was employed for over thirty years as the church business manager. Under an oral amendment to her employment contract, she alleged she was given five weeks of paid vacation annually. A new pastor, however, was unaware of any such oral amendment. The pastor learned of the Plaintiff’s vacation pay because in his third year he noticed she added five weeks of salary to her payroll when she set up the annual payroll. The plaintiff was given the choice of abiding by the written employment contract, i.e., not receiving the extra five weeks of salary, or retiring. The plaintiff agreed to neither and was terminated. The appellate court reversed solely because the trial court dismissed the case without conducting a factual inquiry into whether the employment claims raised by the Plaintiff implicated the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. On remand, such an inquiry would have to be conducted.

Churches may still be able to limit the scope of litigation by proving at the outset that the claims presented do intrude on ecclesiastical church governance. For example, a business manager may be more than a mere bookkeeper and may be directly involved in ministry management. As reported herein, some courts will limit discovery to that issue because there is no point in proceeding with the case if it involves ecclesiastical issues. The written employment contract was not the subject of the court opinion and a well-drawn contract might include a description of ecclesiastical job functions to which the employee has agreed by signing the contract.

CHURCH BENEFICIARY LITIGATION

Church members that wish to include their church in their will or pour over trusts, or settlor trusts for that matter, should provide a copy of the documents to the church. The passage of time, and changes in lives, might make the church beneficiary that was unaware to begin with to continue to be unaware of the bequest in time to prevent the bequest from being looted.

In Kogudus v Jurgenstein, Slip Op., (Cal. App. 2018)(unpublished), the caretakers allegedly had the pour over trust changed to make themselves the beneficiaries of the trust. The church did not learn of the amendment to the trust until many years later. However, in this instance, it was not too late to attempt to recover the bequest. The statute of limitation had ostensibly run but because the church did not learn of the amendment of the trust until long after the amendment was enacted, the appellate court reversed the trial court holding that the statute of limitations might not have run if the church could prove at trial it did not have inquiry notice of the amendment to the trust until long after the actual amendment.

Churches that receive documents containing bequests should preserve them as valuable papers and annually determine the status. Sometimes elderly members can no longer participate in the life of the church due to infirmity and caretakers may have to move them outside of the churches’ operational area. If the bequest is of sufficient concern, then a church can engage counsel, a private detective, a skip tracer, or other means in the internet age to determine the status and possibly even keep in contact with their elderly member. A church should have a committee that has as its sole task to minister to the elderly, anyway, and keep in contact.

ECCLESIASTICAL DISCOVERY

In the present legal environment, church defense lawyers should almost always start with a well-crafted Motion to Dismiss. Indeed, exceptions to that general rule are difficult to conjure. The most prevalent might simply be that churches, as primarily volunteer organizations with little internal infrastructure, might simply be unable to engage counsel and gather the information needed for a Motion to Dismiss, and its higher standards, in the short time available after service of process on the church. In most federal courts and many state trial courts, discovery cannot commence until the case is at issue. Discovery is often the true cost center of litigation because it requires an immense investment of the time of a lawyer. A Motion to Dismiss often delays or limits discovery.

In Presbyterian Church USA v Hon. Brian Edwards, Slip Op. (Ky., 2018), the church was sued in the trial court by a terminated ministerial staff member. The termination allegedly arose from an unauthorized transfer of church funds to another entity incorporated without authorization from the church leadership. There was no allegation of defalcation. The church did not immediately respond to the lawsuit with a Motion to Dismiss on Ministerial Exception grounds. The former employee issued written discovery requests to the church. The trial court ordered the church to respond to the written discovery. The church appealed the decision through an extraordinary writ. The Court of Appeals of Kentucky and then Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the trial court and limited discovery only to the applicability of the Ministerial Exception.

The information needed for a Motion to Dismiss in most employment actions in which it is contemplated that the jurisdiction of the court will be challenged on First Amendment grounds, and especially the Ministerial Exception, will always include the governing documents of the church and church corporation. Job descriptions, employment contracts, if any, and employee manuals, if any, will follow in importance. Church files are notoriously hard to muster, especially if the insider now suing had access. Lastly, church bulletins, newsletters, websites, and internal communications may be needed to persuade that the former employee was, indeed, ministerial in function. Computers never forget and even deleted files can often be recovered.

CHURCH CONTRACTS ENFORCEABILITY

The sanctity of contracts is so revered in the United States that contracts are preserved and protected in the Constitution of the United States. Article 1, §10, US Constitution. Indeed, the section prohibits any state from making any law that impairs the obligation of contracts. Thus, it should not be a surprise that a claim based on a written employment contract might survive assertion of the Ministerial Exception and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine arising from the First Amendment. The idea is not that one clause overshadows the other, but rather that they are co-equal in force and must be reconciled so that both survive.

In Sumner v Simpson University, Slip Op. (Cal. App. 3rd, 2018), the Dean of the Tozer Theological Seminary, a part of Simpson University, asserted a breach of contract claim and state tort claims, such as defamation arising from her second termination. She was reinstated after her first termination and compensated for lost wages so the first termination was not argued. However, violation of what might be characterized as a corrective action plan, an insubordination charge, was alleged to be the basis of the second termination that resulted in the lawsuit. The trial court granted summary judgment because Simpson University and the seminary were religious organizations and the Dean, who also taught in the seminary, was deemed to be subject to the Ministerial Exception. The California appellate court sustained summary judgment as to the tort claims under the Ministerial Exception. However it reversed the trial court as to the breach of contract claim. Succinctly, the conclusion of the appellate court was that a contract claim could be decided under Neutral Principles of Law. The appellate court held that a charge of insubordination might or might not be based on religious doctrine. The facts recited by the Court would lead to the conclusion the alleged insubordination may have been regarding secular administrative matters rather than religious matters. However, because the trial court might still be confronted with a religious question as the proceeding developed on remand the appellate court did not foreclose a future dismissal of the claim.

While church hierarchy, ministers, pastors and priests may not be able to assert claims arising from an alleged breach of a written contract in most cases, employees of parachurch organizations with dual roles, secular and religious, may still be able to do so. Much will be determined by whether the termination arises from religious matters or secular matters. Characterization of a termination as religious will be reviewed for authenticity. Therefore, written employment contracts should be written and negotiated carefully. Adverse employment actions should always be carefully documented and especially consistently with any existing written contract governing the relationship. A contract is at its core a promise, and churches should expect to have to keep those they enshrine in written contracts.

TITLE VII EXEMPTION – RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS

Parachurch organizations, religious entities that are not churches or non-profit entities that are directly or indirectly owned and controlled by churches, struggle at times with whether the Ministerial Exception or the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, both arising from the First Amendment, apply to various legal questions. This struggle is most pronounced when dealing with state law tort, employment or contract questions. It is less pronounced with regard to federal law claims, or at least, it should be.

In Aguillard v Louisiana College, Ruling, Slip Op. (WD La., Alexandria Div., 2018) the federal trial court granted summary judgment against the Plaintiff to terminate the Plaintiff’s federal employment law claims based on the religious organization exemption found in Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at 42 USC §2000e-2(e)(2). The opinion’s analysis is instructive of the analysis probably needed in those circuits that have not considered the religious organization exemption. In this case, the Plaintiff claimed he was terminated for his religious beliefs by the religious school. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims for disability discrimination, religious belief discrimination, and age discrimination were all summarily dismissed. It should be noted termination was not simply by executive fiat but was also confirmed through the school’s own tenure required due process procedures.

Such cases will probably be determined in the first instance by the clarity with which the religious identity or purpose of the parachurch organization is enshrined in the founding documents and perpetuated in the policy and procedure manuals of the entity. Such religious identity should not be merely assumed because the organization has been around for a long time. Documents lacking clarity of identification should be amended.

THE PASTOR’S PROMISE – IN LITIGATION

Congregations can be fickle. Every pastor knows the congregation can vote with their feet, i.e., leave; vote with their money, i.e., give less to the church; and change the channel, i.e., look for better religious entertainment. Some churches change pastors every three or four years in some sort of misguided search for the “right fit,” or the right dynamism. In response, in order to obtain some level of stability, pastors sometimes negotiate employment contracts.

In Lee v Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Slip Op. (3rd Cir. 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed a Pennsylvania federal trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to a church in a breach of employment contract case. The trial court granted summary judgment to the church, even though the church was not moving for summary judgment but was only resisting the motion for summary judgment presented by the former pastor. The former pastor sued because he was terminated by the church twenty months into his twenty year written employment contract. The employment contract permitted termination for cause and for “material breach.” At the congregational meeting voting to confirm the employment contract, the pastor himself defined “material breach” as “not growing,” “stagnant,” “not a better place,” and “if he did not perform his duties well.” The church alleged it experienced a 39% decline in collections, a 32% drop in Sunday worship attendance, a 61% decrease in registered members, a doubling of church expenditures, and a decline in church “community outreach.” The pastor did not deny those facts but alleged his service was not the cause of those changes in the church. The pastor sought damages of more than $2,000,000 for the income lost in the unexpired term of the contract. The trial court granted summary judgment to the church because to resolve the case would, the trial court held, impermissibly entangle the court in determining whether Lee’s ministry as pastor was “adequate spiritual leadership” and “how that translates into donations and attendance.” Such inquiries, the Court held, would violate the First Amendment ministerial exception as explicated in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v EEOC, 565 US 171 (2012) because the Court would entangle itself in a factual inquiry as to whether the church’s defenses were a pretext.

There are lessons here from two perspectives. The pastor probably should not have agreed in a congregational meeting to define “material breach” as he did. This undoubtedly created a high expectation too early in the relationship and a numerical metric both of which would fluctuate subjectively and objectively in the short term while the contract was designed for a long term. The church maintained its options by incorporating the church bylaws as a material term in the employment contract which required that the pastor provide “spiritual leadership,” a role a secular court cannot evaluate.