Tag: seminaries


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.


While the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception are both clearly understood with regard to churches and denominational organizations, the question whether and how far those doctrines radiate away from churches to para-church organizations seems perennial and persistent.  For example, is a Bible College, seminary, or similar training school for ministers, pastors, priests and other clergy out of the reach of civil courts?  If yes, just how far outside of the reach of civil courts are they?  Some courts seem to be intent on using a microscope to study the boundary between the inside of these doctrines and their outer perimeters.  But, not so Ohio.

In John Doe v Pontifical College Josephinum, Slip Op. (Ohio App. 2017), Mr. Doe was a year from graduating with a Masters in Theology from a school that trained students for the Roman Catholic priesthood.  Mr. Doe was dismissed from the school for sexual conduct and his dismissal was the subject of a posted notice on the campus.  The dismissal was part of the school’s disciplinary process.

Mr. Doe’s lawsuit was dismissed because the court held the claims of Mr. Doe were inextricably intertwined in the disciplinary process which the court held was shielded under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  While that decision was not “news,” Mr. Doe claimed the school breached its contract with him as set forth in the school policies and handbooks regarding access to his records and violated federal educational privacy law by posting the notice.  He wanted to use his records in a canon law appeal.  The court dismissed these claims, too, because the court in order to hear these claims could not avoid reviewing the disciplinary process to determine if the notice arose from the ecclesiastically driven disciplinary process.  Mr. Doe demanded money damages alleging the school was unjustly enriched by being allowed to keep his tuition and fees but the court dismissed the claim because in order to determine whether there was unjust enrichment would require inquiry into the disciplinary decision’s ecclesiastical validity.