Here’s a reminder that, even after Hosanna-Tabor, the ministerial exception does not bar all lawsuits clergy bring against church employers. The DC Court of Appeals has allowed a minister’s breach of contract claim against her former congregation to go forward, notwithstanding the congregation’s claim of immunity. The Rev. Deloris Prioleau, an ordained AME pastor, had a series of one-year employment contracts with the Cornerstone AME Church in DC. When Cornerstone failed to pay Prioleau $39,000 it owed her on her final contract, she brought a breach of contract action. Last week, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that the action could proceed under the “neutral principles of law” approach. Prioleau’s suit, the court said, appeared to be “a straightforward contract case, uncomplicated by ecclesiastical considerations.” Moreover, the ministerial exception did not apply. Prioleau had not challenged Cornerstone’s “authority to hire, to fire, or to assign her duties” and did not seek “reinstatement.” (Oddly, the court did not discuss Hosanna-Tabor itself). The court ended its opinion with a warning, however: “if it becomes apparent … that this dispute does in fact turn on matters of doctrinal interpretation or of church governance, the trial court may grant summary judgment to avoid ‘excessive entanglement with religion.'” The case is Second Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Prioleau, 2012 WL 3243190 (D.C. Court of Appeals, Aug. 9, 2012).
Howard Friedman at Religion Clause reports that coordinated cert petitions have been filed in three recent property disputes between national church bodies and local congregations. Two decisions, discussed by CLR Forum here, arise from the Georgia Supreme Court; one comes from the Connecticut Supreme Court. All three cases question the application of the “neutral principles of law” doctrine, one of the two main approaches to church property disputes, which allows civil courts to resolve such disputes using regular civil law principles. The local congregations that lost these cases, two Episcopalian and one Presbyterian, are the petitioners; the national church bodies have not yet filed their responses.
Another state high-court ruling highlighting the importance of the neutral principles of law doctrine in church property disputes. This week, the New York Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit that parishioners of Our Lady of Vilnius Roman Catholic Church in downtown New York City (left) had brought against the church’s board of trustees, seeking to overturn a decision to dissolve the parish and demolish the church building. In 2007, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, citing the parish’s declining membership and the decayed state of the church building, directed that the parish be dissolved; shortly thereafter, the church’s board of trustees voted to demolish the church building. A group of parishioners then sued, arguing that as members of the parish they, not the board of trustees, had the ultimate say. Applying the neutral principles of law doctrine, the Court of Appeals examined the relevant legal instruments and rejected the parishioners’ argument. The church held the deed, the court explained, and the church’s bylaws gave the board of trustees, not the parishioners, control of the property, to be exercised in conformity with archdiocesan directives. Our Lady of Vilnius Church, about 100 years old, was the traditional Lithuanian Catholic parish in New York City. The case is Blaudziunas v. Egan (N.Y. 2011).
The Georgia Supreme Court last week decided two important church property cases. The rulings, handed down the same day, favor national bodies in disputes with local congregations and add nuance to the “neutral principles of law” doctrine, associated with the US Supreme Court’s holding in Jones v. Wolf, which allows judges to resolve intra-church disputes by interpreting relevant legal documents in terms of neutral civil law principles. The first case, Rector, Wardens, and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Savannah v. Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, applied the neutral principles doctrine to rule that an Episcopal parish in Savannah held property in trust for the parent body, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. As a consequence of this ruling, the parish, which has seceded from the national body and affiliated itself with an African diocese, must vacate the property and turn it over to the national church. In the second case, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, the court similarly concluded, again under the neutral principles doctrine, that a local Presbyterian congregation held its property in trust for the national body, the Presbyterian Church-USA.
Two points about these cases. First, they demonstrate that “hierarchical churches” – and both the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches qualify as such for purposes of American law – have learned, presumably in response to earlier court decisions, to amend and in some cases draw up church rules in a way that insures that local congregations hold property only in trust for the national body. Second, one typically thinks of the neutral principles doctrine in the context of “external” documents like deeds, contracts, and trust instruments. In these cases, however, the court applied the doctrine to “internal” church rules. There’s a danger in applying the doctrine in that context. Canon law may operate in ways that lawyers trained in the civil law system do not fully appreciate; from the perspective of the church, “neutral” civil law principles may not seem neutral at all. In these two cases, the court believed, that was not a problem, as the relevant canons did not implicate religious principles. In future cases, that may not be so clear.