We reported in July 2017 and September 2017 on Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., Slip Op. (Mich. 2017), an opinion of the Supreme Court of Michigan that was revised. Our posts were entitled: The Finger in the Dike and The Leak in the Dike, respectively. The Supreme Court revised its own prior pronouncements that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was jurisdictional and indicated it was not jurisdictional. If a dispute could be decided on neutral principles that did not require an inquiry into ecclesiastical decisions, then the dispute could be resolved by a Michigan court according to the Michigan high court. As we noted when we summarized the decision, the smaller and weaker the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine is defined the more likely it becomes that a court, even a well-meaning one, will simply ignore ecclesiastical sensibilities. Another risk is that churches will be required to comply with laws intended to govern for-profit businesses and local governmental subdivisions, or the rules applicable to public schools, even though churches and church schools have a more fragile financial base.
In Rubinstein v Temple Israel, Slip Op., (Mich. App. 2018), the trial court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. The religious school’s rule that required vaccinations and allowed exemptions only for medical reasons was narrower than state law that also allowed exemption on religious grounds. The trial court reasoned that an inquiry into whether the religious school’s determination that its students would not have religious grounds for refusing vaccinations was ecclesiastical and for that reason the trial court would not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The intermediate appellate court in Michigan, relying on the Michigan Supreme Court decision in Winkler, reversed the trial court because the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was an affirmative defense and not jurisdictional. In other words, a trial court might determine after discovery, in a summary judgment proceeding or a trial, that neutral principles could not decide the dispute but that the trial court would have jurisdiction to make that determination. Likewise, the trial court could rule that the dispute was not ecclesiastical.
The trial court on remand after the parties spend much more on litigation could hold the religious school cannot determine the religious preferences it will tolerate among its students. The trial court could reason that because a “neutral principle,” a state statute designed to preserve religious choice regarding vaccinations required by public schools, could resolve the dispute it need not make an ecclesiastical inquiry. Of course, one would think that under the First Amendment a religious school need not accommodate religious beliefs that vary from its own, whatever they are, but Michigan courts appear to want to be the final arbiter of those religious disputes.
The search for theories of recovery that evade the scope of the Ministerial Exception and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine is ongoing. The theories that seem to offer some hope to aggrieved plaintiffs and to survive motions to dismiss, occasionally, are defamation and interference with contractual relations. However, projecting forward into the future, defamation will almost never yield an economically viable plaintiff’s claim (enough to carry litigation expenses and counsel fees while producing a recovery sufficient to make the risk worthwhile). Also, again projecting, few pastors and only a few denominational leaders will have outside contracts sufficient or provable upon which to base a claim. Nevertheless, as will be noted below, such theories may only survive premised on a faulty appreciation of what constitutes a “church.”
In McRaney v North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Inc., Slip Op., (ND Miss., 2018), the former Executive Director of the non-party General Mission Board of the Baptist Convention for Maryland was terminated. The Plaintiff claimed the termination resulted from defamation by the American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Court held that they were “separate and autonomous” because both were self-governing, i.e., had their own governing boards. However, the former was a “state convention” of the Southern Baptist Convention and the latter’s board was selected at annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. Indeed, these two “separate and autonomous” entities had eight jointly funded staff positions which Plaintiff supervised. The joint employees were engaged through a “partnership agreement” between the entities. When the partnership agreement came up for renewal, the Plaintiff declined it. That position either caused or resulted from a rift which eventually also led to the termination of Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged the termination resulted from a threat of the “autonomous” American Mission Board to pull funding if Plaintiff was not terminated. The Plaintiff also claimed that the American Mission Board tried to cancel Plaintiff’s speaking engagements with a “mission symposium” and the Florida Baptist Convention Pastor’s Conference. The Plaintiff claimed that the American Mission Board posted his photograph in the reception area and labeled it in a disparaging manner causing emotional distress. The Court overruled a motion to dismiss, which means the case will proceed into discovery and possibly other dispositive motions, or even trial, before resolution. The Court held the defamation, interference with the speaking engagements and the inducement of termination, which the Court had to assume were true for purposes of the motion, could be decided without interference with ecclesiastical decision-making and that the American Mission Board was not the actual employer so the Ministerial Exception did not apply.
Like all interlocutory decisions, the eventual final decision could result in the opposite result. But, the premise of this decision, that a denomination can be carved up like a holiday turkey in a tort lawsuit, would seem to invite error. While evangelical denominations are often not strictly hierarchical, the components are not fully “autonomous” but rather “connectional.” The Court did not review the governing documents (and may not have been presented the governing documents at this early stage) in the opinion but even so noted that the board of the American Mission Board was interlocked with the Southern Baptist Convention and that the Plaintiff’s former employer was a “state convention.” Thus, none of the alleged defamation was allegedly “published,” i.e., sent outside the confines of the church. The contracts allegedly interrupted were all intra-church relationships. The Court appears to have decided to engage in resolving an intra-church employment dispute brought by an employee the Court held was probably covered by the Ministerial Exception. Nevertheless, the case is moving forward on a defamation theory and a contractual interference theory and if one court will agree to hear more, others might also.
In late 2016, and summarized in a post here March 11, 2017, in the case of Church of God in Christ, Inc. v L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., Slip. Op. (Tenn. App. 2016), the Plaintiff was attempting to assert hierarchal control over church property of one of its daughter churches when the local church leadership “went rogue.” The founding Pastor of the church died and the presiding bishop installed a “speaker – rotation” system to prevent “dissension among those vying” to become the new Pastor. But, two years later the presiding bishop died and a new presiding bishop was appointed. The new bishop had the authority to appoint a new Pastor and appointed himself to be Pastor. But, when the new bishop in the role as the new Pastor tried to assume control of the church assets he was blocked by local church leaders. The opinion does not explain the motive. Because the church had not withdrawn from the denomination, and the denomination had not declared the church withdrawn (or excommunicated) prior to the dispute, the courts determined the dispute was internal and further court intervention was barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The court would not declare the denomination’s rights to the assets of the affiliated church and the court would not confirm the new bishop as the new Pastor pursuant to the denomination’s governing documents.
On September 21, 2017, the Supreme Court of Tennessee opinion was issued reversing the intermediate appellate court and trial court, holding that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not foreclose application of neutral principles of law. The Plaintiff denomination, pursuant to its control documents which were adopted by the local church prior to the dispute, was awarded control of the assets of the daughter church including its real property. It was interesting to note that the Supreme Court of Tennessee was careful to explain that the result would be the same if either the deed or the hierarchical control documents contained reversionary clauses, but that both were not required.
The better practice is for hierarchical churches to maintain reversionary clauses in both the denominational control documents and the local church deed. But, in some if not by now most states, failure to put the language in the deed does not impair denominational enforcement of the reversionary clause. Also, strategic (or fraudulent) related party transfers of the deed that attempt to strip the reversionary clauses of their impact are ineffectual.
This review of church law has now been ongoing long enough to occasionally note developments in individual cases. In the post titled The Finger in the Dike, July 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of Michigan’s opinion in Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., Slip Op. (Mich. 2017), was summarized. In that case, the student applicant to the church high school asserted she was denied admission due to dyslexia. The defendant church school claimed the admission was denied because the student’s academic record did not meet the admissions requirements and that the disability was unknown to the church school at the time the admission decision was made.
The Supreme Court revised its own prior pronouncements that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was jurisdictional and indicated it was not jurisdictional. If a dispute could be decided on neutral principles that did not require an inquiry into ecclesiastical decisions, then the dispute could be resolved by a Michigan court according to the Michigan high court. As we noted when we summarized the decision, the smaller and weaker the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine is defined the more likely it becomes that a court, even a well meaning one, will simply ignore ecclesiastical sensibilities. Another risk is that churches will be required to comply with laws intended to govern for-profit businesses and local governmental subdivisions, even though churches have a more fragile financial base. Thus, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the intermediate appellate court decision and ordered it to consider the arguments it had not reached. The applicability of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was left for the trial court to determine.
In Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., Slip. Op. (Mich. App., September 21, 2017), the Court of Appeals ruled that Michigan laws requiring schools not to discriminate on the basis of disability applied to church schools, too. The law allowed church schools to discriminate on religious grounds, i.e., exclude a student that was not an adherent to the beliefs of the church school but not based on disability. Thus, the case was remanded to the trial court to determine whether there was any ecclesiastical issue barring consideration of the dispute and whether the school based its admission decision on the alleged disability of the Plaintiff.
Another implication that might arise is the financial burden on the church school. If the trial court decides there is no ecclesiastical issue it could also decide the only issue is whether the admission decision was discriminatorily based on disability. To avoid such an issue in the future, or because it is enjoined or otherwise prohibited from making admission decisions based on academic performance for fear that lurking within is an undisclosed disability, the church school might also be forced to admit an academically challenged student and then might be forced to allocate accommodation resources (e.g., lower performance expectations, tutors, learning disability professionals). The taxpayers have been unwilling in most places to fund these accommodations in public schools and public budgets have only been able to pay lip service to these needs. As a result, public school systems struggle to meet these requirements and usually fail. Church schools might get the opportunity to fail as well because donated money may be no more plentiful than public money.