“ECCLESIASTICAL ABSTENTION DOCTRINE” AND “MINISTERIAL EXCEPTION” BAR JURISDICTION OVER MINISTER’S EMPLOYMENT TERMINATION CLAIMS

Reese v. General Assembly of Faith Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-12-01303-CV (March 14, 2014)
Justices Moseley, Bridges, and Evans (Opinion)
About two years into his five-year employment agreement, Plaintiff Reese was terminated as pastor of Faith Cumberland Presbyterian Church. When he sued for breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the trial court sustained the Church’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed all of Pastor Reese’s claims with prejudice. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The First Amendment’s “free exercise clause,” made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits government action that “encroach[es] on the church’s ability to manage its internal affairs.” Two jurisdictional constructs have evolved from that general principle: the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” and the “ministerial exception.” The former prevents courts from exercising jurisdiction over matters concerning “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government” and the like. The latter, recently applied by the United States Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case, bars state or federal courts from “decid[ing] cases concerning employment decisions by religious institutions concerning a member of the clergy or an employee in a ministerial position.” Given these principles, the Dallas Court declared that “[t]he free exercise clause of the Constitution prohibits the courts from reviewing employment decisions regarding ministers.” Courts cannot “second guess” a termination decision because to do so would “deprive the Church of its right to ‘shape its own faith and mission’ by ‘imposing an unwanted minister.’” And they cannot impose damages because that would “operate as a penalty on the Church for terminating an unwanted minister.” The trial court, therefore, properly held that it lacked jurisdiction over Reese’s claims.

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