Dalton and Tomich white logo
Dalton and Tomich white logo

Employment matters and the religious leader: The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Civil Court

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision addressed the thorny issue of how to remove a pastor from a church.  As noted in, Richard P. Hillenbrand v. Christ Lutheran Church of Birch Run, an unpublished opinion of the Michigan Court of Appeals, (2015), the decision is denominationally based and the concepts used are focused both on constitutional limitations and internal Church law.

Richard Hillenbrand (“Pastor Hillenbrand” or “Plaintiff”) served as the pastor at Christ Lutheran Church (“the Church” or “Defendant”) in Birch Run, Michigan, from 2005 until termination of his employment in 2012. In 2013, Pastor Hillenbrand filed a complaint against the Defendant that alleged that the Church, as a member of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (“LCMS”), wrongfully terminated his employment in violation of the LCMS constitution. According to the Plaintiff, LCMS’s constitution requires employment disputes to be presented to an LCMS Dispute Resolution Panel (“panel”). As a result, a hearing was held before such a panel on August 17 and August 18, 2012. However, the Church anticipatorily withdrew its membership from LCMS and stated it would not participate in the hearing. Nevertheless, the hearing proceeded, and ultimately the panel ruled that the Church’s decision to terminate the Plaintiff’s employment as a pastor “should be reviewed and revised” by a court of law. The panel further concluded that Pastor Hillenbrand should be compensated from the date of termination of his employment “until said time when Plaintiff receives and, if he so chooses as led by the Holy Spirit, accepts a call to another congregation.” In response to the Plaintiff’s complaint, the Church filed a motion for summary disposition, asserting that it was entitled to such because the Ecclesiastical Abstention doctrine prevents the courts from determining whether a church has violated its own policies and procedures. The Church further argued that, as common-law arbitration, its agreement to be bound by a hearing before an LCMS panel was unilaterally revocable. Plaintiff filed a response asserting that because LCMS was hierarchical, and not congregational, the hearing before the panel was binding and therefore must be enforced.

Thus, to reach its conclusion, the court first had to determine whether LCMS is hierarchical in nature as to invoke the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and preclude the courts from reviewing the Church’s termination decision, or congregational in nature as to render the panel’s decision advisory and nonbinding. Under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, where a denomination is hierarchical, “civil courts may not re-determine the correctness of an interpretation of canonical text or some decision relating to the government of the religious policy, . . . but must defer to the resolution of those issue by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization.” Community Church v. Lamont Christian Reformed Church, 285 Mich.App. 602, 616 (2009). “A church organization is congregational if it is self-governing; a church organization is hierarchical if it is “part of and governed by a larger organization.” Little v. First Baptist Church, Crestwood, 475 U.S. 1148, 1148 (1986).

According to the Defendant’s articles of association, its members “shall worship and labor together according to the discipline, rules and usage of the [LCSM] . . . .” In contrast, LCMS’s constitution states as follows: “[T]he Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body . . . .” The LCMS constitution further states, “[m]embership of a congregation . . . gives the Synod no equity in the property of the congregation.” Article XIV grants LCMS congregations the right to “adopt bylaws that are consistent with and do not contradict the Constitution of the Synod, which controls and supersedes such bylaws and all other rules and regulations of the Synod.” Under Section of LCMS’s bylaws, “[t]he use of the Synod’s conflict resolution procedures shall be the exclusive and final remedy for those who are in dispute . . . ,” and under Section, the final decision of the Dispute Resolution Panel is “binding upon the parties.” Yet, the LCMS constitution states that, “no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force . . . .” Notably, Section 1.10.3 of the bylaws indicates that, “this chapter does not provide an exclusive remedy for . . . [d]isputes arising under contractual arrangements of all kinds”. Finally, the LCMS 1983 Resolution states as follows:

The [LCMS] reaffirms that its synodical polity is essentially and principally congregational in nature . . . .” [Further,] “the Synod acknowledges that under the definition and application of the word “hierarchical” in civil law there are aspects in the relationships within the Synod between and among congregations . . . which under civil law may apply, express, or evidence what the courts regard as hierarchical dimensions; and be it further [r]esolved, [t]hat, . . . the Synod favors the “neutral principles of law” method whenever it can be applied. . . .

The court noted that, although its resolution and bylaws attempt to create a binding dispute resolution process, the LCMS constitution expressly states that LCMS is not an ecclesiastical government, but rather an advisory body. Therefore, although Defendant was a part of LCMS at the time that Plaintiff’s employment was terminated, LCMS’s constitution expressly states that its organization is congregational in nature, rendering the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine inapplicable, and any LCMS decisions subject to the court’s review.

On this point, Plaintiff and LCMS argue that LCMS is a hybrid entity: generally congregational, but hierarchical regarding confessions, ministerial call, and dispute resolution. The court disagreed, finding that LCMS’s statement in its constitution that it is “not an ecclesiastical government” was binding. Further, because LCMS’s constitution provides that it “controls and supersedes such bylaws and all other rules and regulations of the Synod[,]” even if the resolution infers hierarchical dimensions, such an inference is superseded by the constitution’s statement that LCMS congregations are self governing. Likewise, LCMS’s constitution declares that, “no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force.” According to the court, this statement expressly allows congregations to adopt or disregard LCMS resolutions, and therefore these resolutions are advisory rather than binding. When interpreting this statement, the court was careful not to rely on interpretations of the text provided by the denomination—here, the Plaintiff and LCMS. Case law explains that, “[c]ourts are permitted to enforce a denomination’s constitution only if those constitutional provisions are expressed in a way that would not require [the court] to make an impermissible inquiry into church polity.” When examining a religious document, “a civil court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms, and not to rely on religious precepts . . . .” Jones v. Wolf, 443 US 595, 604 (1979) (emphasis added). Importantly, these documents “are generally construed in accordance with the same rules used for statutory construction.” “If the language is ambiguous, the drafters are presumed to have the meaning plainly expressed.” Slatterly v. Madiol, 257 Mich.App. 242, 256 (2003). The plain language of LCMS’s constitution expressly indicated that it is not a governing body. Therefore, the court was free to accept the plain language interpretation, and did not have to consider the interpretation provided by the denomination. Because it is established that LCMS is not a hierarchical organization, and because its advisory status would not preclude the court from taking jurisdiction over the dispute, the court could proceed with a review of the LCMS panel’s decision.

In the opinion of the Plaintiff, the U.S. Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. V. EEOC, 132 S.Ct. 694, 702 (2012), directed the outcome of the case in his favor. In Hosanna-Tabor, a LCMS church and school terminated a teacher’s employment after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. The teacher filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that her employment was terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the teacher was a minister as to entitle LCMS to protection under the “ministerial exception” of the Civil Rights Act. The Court found that her employment fit within the exception, and therefore concluded that, “the First Amendment requires dismissal of this employment discrimination suit against her religious employer.” The Supreme Court explained that “[b]y requiring the Church to accept a minister it did not want, such an order would have plainly violated the Church’s freedom under the Religion Clauses to select its own ministers.” Therefore, in the instant case, Plaintiff’s request was for Court to do exactly what the Supreme Court said courts should not: impose an unwanted minister on a church. The court stated:

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Thus, the court concluded that because Hosanna-Tabor expressly forbids interference with the internal governance of a church, an analysis of the Church’s decision to terminate Plaintiff’s employment constitutes an impermissible infringement upon that Church’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Therefore, the court held that summary judgment was properly granted to the Defendant.

If you have an issue involving the employment status of a pastor or religious leader, please contact one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to assist you.

Attorney Advertising Disclaimer

Please note that this website may be considered attorney advertising in some states. Prior results described on this site do not guarantee similar outcomes in future cases or transactions.