Last week the Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments on two important cases regarding whether a private religious school can invoke the First Amendment’s “ministerial abstention” doctrine in defending against breach of contract claims brought by terminated faculty.
The cases, Kirby v. Lexington Theological Seminary and Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, involve lawsuits filed by two former Lexington Theological Seminary professors after they were dismissed by the institution. One professor was hired to prepare future church leaders as an instructor of “Church and Society” and to teach students about the Bible in a manner consistent with the seminary’s religious mission. A second professor taught courses about the New Testament, theological thought and modern references to Jesus. After their positions were eliminated, both filed suit.
The Kentucky Supreme Court now will address whether the former professors have valid lawsuits against the Seminary or whether courts are prohibited from entertaining claims such as these based upon the religious nature of the school. In the recent case of EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the Supreme Court of the United States held that governmental officials are prohibited from interfering “with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.” In that case, because the Christian school treated its teachers as ministers responsible for the spiritual well-being of students, the government could not apply laws prohibiting discrimination against the school because doing so would affect the faith and mission of the church itself.
These cases before the Kentucky Supreme Court present the first occasion for Kentucky to address whether to adopt the “ministerial exception” and in particular, with reference to contract claims (a question the Hosanna-Tabor court expressly chose not to address). This doctrine protects the right of religious institutions to select their ministerial employees without interference from government officials.
Courts usually employ an ecclesiastical abstention where they refrain from ruling on internal matters relating to internal governance of religious institutions. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is important because it touches on all aspects of internal church (and by extension religious schools) governance, including theology in practice and the selection of its ministers.
Historically, from the general ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, developed a ministerial exception to protect employment decisions of religious institutions addressing its ministerial employees. As the Supreme Court recently recognized: “requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so…interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of who will personify its beliefs.” Accordingly, the ecclesiastical abstention prevents secular courts from reviewing religious disputes within a church and if the dispute arises out of an employment decision, then the ministerial exception applies concerning ministerial employees of a religious organization.
Kentucky has historically recognized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine dating back to at least the 1930s. Although Kentucky courts have adopted and applied the broader ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, until these suits, Kentucky courts have not had the occasion to address the doctrine’s progeny – the ministerial exception. These important decisions for the Kentucky Supreme Court should clarify the application of these principles for Kentucky’s religious institutions.
Attorneys at Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Moloney, PLLC filed an amicus brief in support of Lexington Theological Seminary on behalf of the Association of Christian Schools International and Alliance Defending Freedom. The Association of Christian Schools International has more than 60 Kentucky members educating over 15,000 students with the Commonwealth.
Bryan has more than 15 years of litigation experience in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights, education law, employment law, insurance law and public entity defense. He has defended numerous public employee speech claims as well as claims before the EEOC charging race, gender, age and disability discrimination. From 2010 through 2012, Bryan served as Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, developing and supporting its allied attorney network.