Ministerial Exception and the First Amendment

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland released an interesting church employment decision recently, although it is officially “unreported.” These are the operative facts.

Pastor works at a church. The church received a bequest of over $1.2 million dollars. The bequest is to be used for two purposes: (1) one-half for the general operation and maintenance of the church; and (2) one-half for the upkeep of the church’s cemetery.

Problem: The church sold the cemetery before receiving the bequest. Pastor allegedly tells the Board of Trustees of the church that it needs to seek guidance regarding the half of the bequest for the cemetery upkeep because of potential fraud and tax evasion issues. Pastor is then fired from his employment because the church has “lost faith” in his spiritual leadership.

Pastor filed a lawsuit, which the trial court dismisses. The Court of Special Appeals determined that the dismissal of the lawsuit was correct because of the “ministerial exception.” The “ministerial exception” forbids “a secular court from obtaining subject matter jurisdiction over a claim brought by an employee against his religious institution employer.” The “ministerial exception” is based in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

In this case, Pastor was a “minister” and his claim would have impermissibly entangled court in the “church’s doctrinal decision-making and internal self-governance.” Therefore, unless Pastor’s claim was properly dismissed.

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