Erdman was an elder of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church. She became Chapel Hill’s executive for stewardship and reported to the church’s senior pastor, Dr. Mark Toone. Toone taught classes at the church and led tours of sites that were religiously and historically significant. Erdman questioned whether the tours would adversely affect Chapel Hill’s tax-exempt status. Toone advised her not to pursue the matter, but she disregarded the advice and removed a tour announcement from a church bulletin after Toone had approved it. Toone then accused Erdman of insubordination, and Erdman responded by accusing Toone of intimidation. The dispute was eventually elevated to Chapel Hill’s governing body, which recommended that Erdman be terminated. Erdman then submitted her complaint to the Presbytery of Olympia, which concluded that Erdman’s allegations could not reasonably be proved and declined to file charges against Toone. Erdman had the right to appeal that decision, but did not. Instead, she filed a lawsuit against Chapel Hill and Toone, alleging negligent retention of Toone, negligent supervision of Toone, sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The trial court dismissed the claims on the ground that under the First Amendment a civil court cannot consider claims that have been submitted to a hierarchically organized church’s ecclesiastical tribunal. Erdman appealed.
The Supreme Court issued three decisions: the lead opinion authored by Chief Justice Madsen and joined by Justices James Johnson, Wiggins, and Owens; a concurring opinion authored by Justice Alexander (sitting as Justice Pro Tempore) and joined by Justice Fairhurst; and an opinion dissenting in part and concurring in part authored by Justice Chambers and joined by Justices Stephens and Appelwick (sitting as Justice Pro Tem).
Madsen, C.J.: In her plurality opinion, Chief Justice Madsen first declined to address Erdman’s Title VII claims because the record was not sufficiently developed on a critical fact. Turning to the negligent supervision and retention claims, Chief Justice Madsen recognized that, under the First Amendment, religious organizations retain the power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine. She then concluded that Erdman’s claims implicate important First Amendment concerns, including the ability to choose and retain spiritual leaders. Given those concerns, Chief Justice Madsen concluded that the negligent supervision and retention claims could not go forward because it would be impossible to adjudicate the claims without examining church doctrines and beliefs, which is precluded under the First Amendment.
Alexander, J., concurring: Justice Alexander, in turn, concurred in the result reached by Chief Justice Madsen’s lead opinion. He noted in his concurrence that Erdman had submitted her claims involving matters of discipline, faith, and ecclesiastical law to the Presbytery of Olympia and had not appealed the decision of that body. Justice Alexander therefore concluded that “we must accept that decision as final and binding,” which “resolves the case.” Having so concluded, he stated that neither the lead opinion nor the concurrence/dissent should “speculate about what this court should do in factually dissimilar cases that may come before the court in the future.”
Chambers, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part: Lastly, Justice Chambers, in his dissenting/concurring opinion, noted (as did Justice Alexander) that Erdman had submitted her claims to a tribunal of a hierarchical church and is therefore bound by its decision. As such, he agreed with the result reached by the lead opinion. But Justice Chambers proceeded to disagree with the lead opinion that the ministerial exception was applicable. In his view, courts have historically protected the rights of individuals and should continue to do so as long as the approach taken avoids judicial resolution of faith and excessive entanglement with religion. Justice Chambers noted that many courts have therefore held that the First Amendment permits judicial consideration of negligent supervision and retention claims against churches and concluded that “the neutral principles of law approach is the best way to protect churches from judicial interference and individuals from the categorical deprivation of their rights based on the sectarian nature of the tortfeasors.”