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Court: Baptist church in East End has First Amendment right to fire minister

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, September 5, 2018 4:36 p.m
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Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Members of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer hug each other during a recent worship service. (Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

A Pittsburgh church’s religious liberty under the First Amendment includes the right to hire and fire its ministers without government interference, an appellate court ruled on Wednesday.

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer won a unanimous favorable ruling Wednesday in a breach of contract lawsuit filed by its former pastor, the Rev. William David Lee, in 2015.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said the First Amendment prevents courts from deciding questions of spiritual leadership.

“While the amount of church contributions and members is a matter of arithmetic, assessing Lee’s role, if any, in causing decreased giving and reduced membership in the church requires a determination of what constitutes adequate spiritual leadership and how that translates into donations and attendance — questions that would impermissibly entangle the court in religious governance and doctrine prohibited by the Establishment Clause,” the 3-0 ruling said.

Lee sued the church for $2.6 million for breach of contract for dismissing him in 2015. The church had fired him after attendance plummeted and church expenses doubled under his leadership, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm that specializes in church-state cases.

The small black congregation in Pittsburgh’s East End defended itself by citing the 2012 Supreme Court decision Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, in which the court unanimously upheld a house of worship’s First Amendment right to hire or fire its ministers — known as the ministerial exception.

“The government has no right to entangle itself in choosing a church’s ministers,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which represented Sixth Mount Zion. “As the Supreme Court unanimously ruled six years ago, houses of worship have the right to choose who leads the flock.”

Founded in 1899, Sixth Mount Zion hired Lee in 2012 and approved, at his insistence, a 20-year contract early in his tenure as senior pastor, according to the church’s reply brief.

The contract, which spelled out Lee’s salary and benefits, said that he could be fired “for cause” if there was a material breach of contract, a serious moral or criminal offense, a long-term incapacitation or another basis permitted by contract or law.

The brief alleged that under Lee’s leadership, the church’s registered membership dropped by 61 percent, Sunday morning worship attendance declined by 32 percent, and tithes and offerings dropped by 39 percent — all while the church’s expenditures rose nearly 200 percent, according to Becket.

When the church asked Lee to step down in 2015, he sued the church and 11 of its lay leaders for $2.6 million. A federal trial court rejected his lawsuit under the ministerial exception.

Lee appealed that decision, arguing that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply because his failure to “attract new souls to Christ” was a “secular” failure, equivalent to a sports manager failing to “attract new fans to the game,” according to Becket.

Wednesday’s decision was the first 3rd Circuit case to apply Hosanna-Tabor, and the first appeal to apply Hosanna-Tabor to a contract claim.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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