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Does the Church Autonomy Doctrine Bar Courts from Hearing Tort Actions Arising from the Church-Minister Employment Relationship?

February 18, 2021

By Stephanie Taub, Senior Counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent church autonomy cases have focused on the ministerial exception to employment law. Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC and Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru make it clear that the First Amendment forbids secular courts from hearing employment law claims, such as Title VII claims, that involve ministerial positions at religious organizations. These cases recognize that churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools, and other religious organizations have a right to choose their own leaders and internal structures. This means, as Our Lady of Guadalupe held, that “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.”

A new cert petition presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to answer an important related question: Does the church autonomy doctrine apply only in the context of employment law claims, or are religious employers protected even when a challenge to a minister’s termination is framed as a tort?

The case is North American Mission Board v. McRaney. It involves two Southern Baptist organizations who partner together to plant churches and share their faith. A leader of one of the organizations expressed disagreement with how the groups were partnering together. After being removed from his leadership position at one organization, he brought a lawsuit aimed at the other. The lawsuit was framed as a tort action, involving causes of action such as intentional interference with his “business relationships,” namely his previous employment. Resolving those claims would require courts to scrutinize why a religious employer removed a minister from his position—an inquiry forbidden under the Supreme Court’s ministerial exception cases.

There is currently a split in authority about whether the church autonomy doctrine or its derivative, the ministerial exception, extends to torts where there is a causal connection between the allegedly tortious conduct and the termination of ministerial employment. No one argues that churches are immune to tort actions entirely, but when the lawsuit is really a challenge to ministerial employment decisions or internal church governance, courts—for example, the 4th Circuit in Bell v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—have applied the First Amendment to bar the suit.

Before heading to the Supreme Court, the North American Mission Board sought en banc review before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In a narrow vote of nine to eight, review was denied, but two judges penned lengthy dissents focusing on the importance of the religious liberty issues involved.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge James Ho, joined by five judges, wrote, “If religious liberty under our Constitution means anything, it surely means at least this much: that the government may not interfere in an internal dispute over who should lead a church—and especially not when the dispute is due to conflicting visions about the growth of the church.”

Similarly, Judge Andrew Oldham, joined by four judges, noted in his opinion that “this case is rich with questions of exceptional importance,” including the application of the church autonomy doctrine to “certain torts.”

North American Mission Board presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify that courts have a duty to stay out of church leadership decisions, whether challenges to them are framed as torts or as employment law claims.

Note: This article was first published on The Federalist Society and is re-published here with permission. The article presents the main points of an op-ed published in The Federalist Society. This work was authored by Stephanie Taub. The full article can be found on The Federalist Society website, here.

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