Wisconsin Supreme Court Plurality Dismisses Breach of Contract Claim Under Ministerial Exception

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has dismissed a breach of contract claim against St. Patrick Congregation, a Roman Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Wisconsin.  The reasoning is…complicated.

The plaintiff had entered into a one-year contract with the Church as “Director of Faith Formation,” and the terms of the contract provided that dismissal was to occur only for “good cause” as determined by the Church.  It was undisputed that the plaintiff was a “ministerial employee,” but the plaintiff sued for her expectation damages (that is, she had already been paid for services rendered) when the Church terminated her.

The Church did not defend on the issue of whether the termination was for good cause.  It instead moved to dismiss under the First Amendment and Article I section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution (“The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed; … nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted….”), on the basis that the plaintiff was a ministerial employee and that the Church is a religious institution.

The case was dismissed but the rationale is kind of a mess. 

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