The United States and Texas Constitutions each provide for the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. These constitutional prescriptions frequently bar the application of civil laws, including employment laws, to religious institutions if they require the evaluation of a church’s self-governance. However, in certain circumstances, as reflected in the case below, churches and religious institutions can still be subject to civil laws dealing with employment matters.

In Shannon v. Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church U.S., a former employee resolved her harassment and retaliation claims against the church through a written settlement agreement. The settlement agreement included a nondisparagement clause. The former employee asserted that the church violated that clause when it allegedly said disparaging things about her to her then-current employer, and the statements eventually caused her discharge. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit based upon the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The employee appealed the dismissal of her case.

The appellate court noted that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prohibits courts from exercising jurisdiction over disputes concerning theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, and conformity of the members of the church to the standards or morals required of them by their church. Under the doctrine, courts will not attempt to right wrongs related to the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of clergy. However, the doctrine does not prevent churches from being subject to civil law where the dispute at hand can be determined without resolving a religious controversy and would not require a court to delve into religious dogma, interpret doctrinal beliefs, or otherwise resolve religious questions.

In this matter, the appellate court determined that it did not need to delve into religious dogma to resolve the dispute. Instead, the court only had to interpret the provisions of the settlement agreement wherein the church agreed not to disparage the former employee. The appellate court noted that the crux of the case dealt with the conduct of the parties after they signed the agreement and whether the church violated the nondisparagement clause. The dispute did not involve matters related to the reason for the employee’s discharge or the resolution of her harassment claims. According to the court, the interpretation of the contract was purely secular and did not involve an examination of church doctrine. As a result, the court reversed the dismissal of the case.

This decision reinforces the notion that constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion do not render all employment decisions and related actions by a church or religious institution immune from scrutiny by civil courts. In situations where the actions involved do not concern the application of ecclesiastical doctrine or touch directly upon matters regarding employment actions related to ministerial employees, a church’s employment-related actions can still be subject to civil rules regulating the employment relationship.