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Courts and Churches—Interfering in Some Ways But Not Others

Not everything a church does to a pastor is outside the reach of the court. That is a recent lesson church officials learned in a case out of Ohio federal court dealing with the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Also known as the church autonomy doctrine, this is the principle that civil courts will stay out of the doctrinal and important decisions a church makes, such as the decision to fire a pastor or remove a parishioner from membership. This case, Barrow v. Living Word Church, et al.,1 is an interesting twist on the doctrine, and serves as a word of caution for churches.

A volunteer pastor, also a parishioner, of a local church, was removed from that position and expelled from membership, supposedly for violating some moral tenets of the church. The volunteer pastor filed suit under a rarely used federal law called section 1981. Section 1981 is the federal law that provides for the freedom to contract without regard to race.

The pastor argued that certain church officials had tortiously interfered with his contract rights with his publisher by contacting his publishing agent and spreading information about his moral misconduct. (His agent apparently dropped him after learning the information from the church officials). The pastor argued, citing some racial slurs these individuals had used in the past and comparing his treatment to that of a white pastor, that these actions were motivated, not by a sense of moral or religious duty, but because he was African-American.

The church defendants cried foul, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction to consider the case. After the church raised this defense, the volunteer pastor took off the table any request that the court review the church’s decision to remove him from his status as volunteer clergy or as a parishioner, and also told the court he did not want it to examine the premise of the church’s decision. In other words, he took the “church” or religious decisions out of the lawsuit. Instead, he claimed, because of his race, that the church defendants committed wrongs against him that interfered with existing or prospective business relationships—his relationship with his agent.

The Court agreed that it clearly could not decide whether the pastor was properly removed from any volunteer clergy status he had, or whether he was properly excluded as a parishioner. But the Court ultimately agreed with the pastor that he still had a case, noting that the issue of his removal was different from the issue of whether or not church members violated the pastor’s right to contract because of his race. The Court reached this conclusion despite the church defendants’ argument that the pastor’s claim would involve delving into an internal church investigative meeting. Indeed, the Court noted: “[T]he Free Exercise Clause does not shield church people from any secular court consideration of what happens in church meetings just because of where it happened. If a church meeting is used as a place to plan to commit torts involving third parties—which is what is alleged here regarding [the church’s] interference with [the pastor’s] book deals—ecclesiastical abstention will not shield the occurrences in the meeting from secular court consideration.”2

The church defendants must now continue defending the suit, although the pastor ultimately has the burden of proving the facts he alleged were true.

This case presents a fairly unique scenario. But it brings up the idea of whether a church can rely on the church autonomy doctrine for every action that it does following a decision to remove a pastor or a member. As the court in this case correctly stated, the decision to remove a pastor and its underlying rationale will not be questioned. But it also pointed out that courts will continue to hear cases that involve a church’s tortious or wrongful conduct. And as this case illustrates, sometimes the line between legitimate church action and tortious conduct can be hard to find. A church would be wise to ensure that it is on the right side of that line.

Before taking additional action against a removed, former pastor, for example, a church should consult counsel on potential legal traps. For example, publishing a removed member’s misconduct too widely might lead to defamation claims. Or if a pastor has writing or speaking engagements that he loses because of actions that go above and beyond the simple fact of dismissal, he could claim tortious interference with contract. Churches must be very careful how they spread someone’s name around the community, potentially destroying business.

These issues can often be avoided by agreements ahead of time. A pastor can agree in an employment agreement that certain actions will be carried out in the event of his removal for violations of the church’s moral tenets. Then, if church officials carry out those disciplinary actions, there is less of an argument that the actions are tortious, because they are listed as religiously important and have also been agreed to. Also, this case turned on the fact that the former pastor was able to point to another reason that is specially protected in the law as the motivation for these actions. Where that reason is lacking, the church will face less exposure to legal liability.

Ultimately, don’t assume everything a church does in connection with dismissing a volunteer, member or pastor is off limits for courts. Courts across the country vary in the way they approach these issues and churches should be prepared.

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Barrow v. Living Word Church, et al., Case No. 3:15-cv-00341-WHR-MRM (S.D. Ohio July 25, 2016)
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