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Court of Appeals Rejects Claim of Religious Immunity in Breach of Contract Suit

On August 9, 2012, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Second Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Prioleau, No. 11-CV-382, slip op. (D.C. Aug. 9, 2012) in which it considered a claim of religious immunity in a breach of contract suit. Id. at 2.

This case arose from a dispute between a reverend (“appellee”) and two religious organizations (together, “the church” or “appellants”). The reverend alleged that the church failed to pay her money owed pursuant to a contract for her services. Id. The church moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the grounds that the church was entitled to immunity under the religion clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Id. at 1-2. It supported its motion with letters from two of its members. Id. at 2. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the issue of immunity and, based on the evidence presented, denied the church’s motion. Id. at 5. The church appealed. Id.

On appeal, the Court explained that the church’s motion constituted a “factual attack” on the trial court’s jurisdiction which permitted the trial court to consider facts presented in evidence and required the reverend (as the plaintiff) to prove that the trial court had jurisdiction. Id. at 6. The Court stated that the “touchstone” for determining whether the trial court had jurisdiction was whether the breach of contract claim could be decided based on “neutral principles of law” as opposed to matters of religious doctrine. Id. at 8. It also stated that the First Amendment “precludes civil courts from interfering with a religious organization’s right to choose its ministers.” Id. at 10

The Court ruled that the First Amendment did not bar jurisdiction in this case because the evidence showed that it was a simple breach of contract suit; specifically, the evidence showed that the reverend entered into a contract with the church, fulfilled her obligations under the contract, and then the church breached the contract by failing to pay her. Id. at 10-11. Furthermore, the reverend “[did] not challenge the church’s authority to hire, to fire, or to assign her duties, and she [did] not seek reinstatement.” Id. at 11. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the case could be resolved by applying “neutral principles of law” and without considering matters of religious doctrine or interfering with the church’s choice of religious representation. Id. It therefore affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the church’s motion and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 13.

The Court noted in closing, however, that “if it becomes apparent to the trial court [during subsequent proceedings] that this dispute does in fact turn on matters of doctrinal interpretation or church governance, the trial court may grant summary judgment to avoid excessive entanglement with religion.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

To view the Court of Appeals’ opinion, click here.