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Protecting Religious Freedom—Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

With greater and greater frequency private and public hiring and firing decisions have come under the purview of the court whether reviewed under a breach of employment contract claim, a Title VII discrimination claim, or even a Whistleblower Act claim.

But what happens when a church or religious organization makes an employment decision? Can the court hold a church accountable under Federal or State law for discrimination or retaliatory firing? Also, beyond just employment decisions, does the court have jurisdiction to review decisions made by church authorities?

Based on the long established Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine the answer is most often no.

Religious Freedom and Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was established in 1871 by the United States Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones. In that case the highest court in the land succinctly held:

In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned.[1]

The courts have since given deference to decisions made by religious organizations in regards to matters such as employment decisions, appointment of directors, and especially doctrinal application. The courts have clearly stated that they will not exercise jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters.

They fired me for what?

The judicial deference given because of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine has created some problems for plaintiffs seeking relief against religious organizations.

For example, in a 2007 case where an employee of a Catholic school brought a claim under Florida’s Private Sector Whistleblower Act, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that generally the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine “precludes courts from exercising jurisdiction where an employment decision concerns a member of the clergy or an employee in a ministerial position.”[2]

Most recently, the court denied its jurisdiction over a claim by a widow that a funeral home had violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act by not burying her husband in accordance with Jewish religious traditions as they had advertised.[3] The court stated that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine prevented it from hearing the case because “although the widow’s complaint [was] framed in counts alleging deceptive and fraudulent misrepresentations regarding Jewish burial customs and traditions, the disposition of those counts cannot be accomplished without first determining . . . what constitutes Jewish burial customs and traditions. Thus, the dispute here . . . is an ecclesiastical one . . . precluding judicial review under the First Amendment.”[4]

Limits to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

However, despite this doctrine there are some cases where the court is willing to interpose its jurisdiction in matters dealing with religious organizations.

In a case where board members of a Church were removed in violation of section 617.0808 (Fla.Stat.2010) and plaintiff board members sued on claims strictly based on the statute and did not challenge the church’s governance nor claim wrongdoing on the church’s part, the court held that the abstention doctrine did not apply.[5] The court stated, “Plaintiffs are not categorically prohibited from ever seeking redress from the courts solely because a religious organization is somehow involved in the dispute. ‘[W]hen a church-related dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving religious controversy, the civil courts may adjudicate the dispute.’”[6]

In other words, so long as deciding the cause of action does not involve the court deciding matters of religious doctrine, doctrinal interpretation, or church governance issues the court may exercise its jurisdiction.[7]

However, as stated above, a church is given nearly carte blanche authority to hire and fire ministerial employees due to the fact that the Church needs the freedom to retain or remove ministers in order to maintain its doctrinal principles and further its religious purpose.

How do we protect ourselves and our church?

Because of this doctrine and its many overlapping applications, a religious organization must be careful to draft its articles of incorporation to protect not only its organization but also its employees and members from potential bad acts by employees or leadership (e.g. the illegal removal of board members without consent or retaliatory firing as discussed in the cases above).

Although most churches trust their leadership, creating a legal safety net can help a church gain the assistance of the court if it is ever needed. Additionally, if and when legal action must be taken a plaintiff’s cause of action must be carefully drafted so as to avoid dismissal under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. On the other hand, the Church is afforded many protections and can be shielded from many lawsuits when the doctrine is applied correctly.

[1]Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728-29 (1871). (emphasis added)
[2] Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. v. Minagorri, 954 So. 2d 640, 641 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007)
[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/05/27/court-wont-decide-whats-a-proper-jewish-burial/
[4] Mammon v. SCI Funeral Services of Florida Inc., 4D15-1788, 2016 WL 3002341, at *5 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) (internal cites and quotations omitted)
[5] Bendross v. Readon, 89 So. 3d 258, 260 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012)
[6] Id. (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added)
[7] For another case involving an exception to the abstention doctrine see Bilbrey v. Myers, 91 So. 3d 887 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012) (pastor was not protected from a defamation claim).

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