U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Court: Church Can Fire Pastor for Low Attendance

The Sixth Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church didn't really need a court decision to fire its pastor.

But the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said the members had every right to do it, despite the lawsuit in Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pittsburgh. Reverend Dr. William David Lee had sued the church for breach of an employment contract.

The reverend lost at trial and again on appeal. That's what happens sometimes when you appeal to higher authority.

Ministerial Exception

In March 2013, the church and the pastor signed an employment contract. It included a 20-year employment term, subject to early termination for "any serious moral or criminal offense."

Lee agreed to abide by church employment procedures and policies, and the agreement allowed either party to terminate under "any other rights of termination allowed ... by law."

About 20 months later, church deacons and the congregation met and decided to terminate the pastor's services. The decision was based largely on declining attendance and tithes, a serious problem for the historic church in one of the poorest communities in Washington, D.C.

The reverend sued for $2,643,996, but the trail judge granted summary judgment for the church. The judge said the church was immune under the ministerial exception, an affirmative defense set forth in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C.

Establishment Cause

In a precedential decision, the Third Circuit said the Supreme Court forbad inquiry into the reason a church discharges its leader.

"Such inquiry would intrude on internal church governance, require consideration of church doctrine, constitute entanglement prohibited under the ministerial exception, and violate the Establishment Clause," the panel said.

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