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In re First Christian Methodist Evangelistic Church

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

August 30, 2019

IN RE FIRST CHRISTIAN METHODIST EVANGELISTIC CHURCH, Relator

          Original Proceeding from the 134th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. DC-18-11718

          Before Justices Schenck, Partida-Kipness, and Reichek

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMANDA L. REICHEK, JUSTICE

         The underlying proceeding involves a church's termination of its senior pastor. In this original proceeding, relator First Christian Methodist Evangelistic Church ("the Church" or relator) seeks a writ of mandamus directing the trial court to vacate its order denying the Church's plea to the jurisdiction and to grant the plea and dismiss the case. After reviewing the Church's petition, the real party in interest's response, the Church's reply, and the mandamus record, we conclude the Church is entitled to the relief requested because the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies as a matter of law to the facts of this case and, as such, the trial court abused its discretion by denying the plea to the jurisdiction.

         Background

         In August 2018, the Church terminated its Senior Pastor, John Wilson III ("the Senior Pastor"). The Senior Pastor filed suit against the Church and three church board members for breach of contract and specific performance, alleging that the Church terminated him without cause and failed to pay him severance that he contends was required to be paid under his employment contract.

         The Church and board members filed a plea to the jurisdiction. They argued that the Senior Pastor was terminated pursuant to church policies and procedures and was not entitled to severance pay because the termination was based on a finding of moral misconduct. The Church maintains that the Senior Pastor's position is inherently religious, and that his employment contract is subject to the laws and bylaws of the Church, which the Church asserts are "codified" in the Church's Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline sets forth "the laws, plans, polity and processes by which [the Church] governs itself and remains consistent" and "reflects [the Church's] understanding of the Church and expectations of its laity and clergy . . . ." The Book of Discipline contains the Church Bylaws. According to the Church, to interpret the employment contract, the fact-finder must interpret the Church's Book of Discipline and the Church Bylaws. Further, the Church argues that the severance provisions of the employment contract are conditioned upon whether the Senior Pastor is terminated for moral misconduct. As such, the determination of whether the Senior Pastor is entitled to severance under the contract requires an analysis of the Church's moral principles, which are set out in the Church's Book of Discipline, and a review of how the Church manages its internal affairs.

         The Church also argues that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the Senior Pastor's case because the decision to terminate the Senior Pastor involved ecclesiastical matters and concerns issues into which a trial court may not delve. For example, pursuant to the laws of the Church, employment decisions concerning the Senior Pastor are restricted to a vote by the Church Conference. Only members in good standing may vote to terminate in the Church Conference, and the qualification of good standing is inherently religious pursuant to criteria set in the Church's Book of Discipline. Membership qualifications include being baptized and promising to live a Christian life, to always remain faithful members of Christ's holy Church, to be loyal to the Church, and to uphold the Church "by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service." According to the Church, any claims surrounding the Senior Pastor's employment are "not purely secular" and, therefore, the lawsuit must be dismissed pursuant to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The Church presented evidence that the Church Conference voted to terminate the Senior Pastor's employment "consistent with the internal policies and procedures of the Church." Similarly, the Church argues that the question of severance pay is a determination of a minister's salary and is also an effort by the Senior Pastor to right an alleged wrong related to the firing or administration of clergy, both of which are meant to be decided outside of the secular court system. Finally, the Church maintains that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies to this case because the termination of the Senior Pastor involves the Church's decisions in managing its affairs. The Church contends that the plea to the jurisdiction should have been granted under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and the ministerial exception.

         In contrast, the Senior Pastor maintains that the underlying case is merely a contract dispute that can be decided under neutral legal principles. He asserts that the only questions to be answered are whether there was a valid employment contract, the terms of that contract, and whether the Church breached those terms by failing to pay him six months' severance. Specifically, he argues that section 5.4 of his employment contract required the Church to pay him six months' severance if the Church terminated him unilaterally without cause upon a vote of the Church Conference:

5.4 Unilateral Termination. The Pastor does hereby agree that the Church Conference may unilaterally terminate this Agreement, without cause, by a majority vote of K the church member's congregation voting at Church Conference. Voting members must be in good standing with the church; i.e. actively Involved In the church as It relates to tithes and offering as well as in attendance. In the event of a unilateral termination by the Church Conference, the Church Conference does hereby agree to pay the Pastor a six (6) months' severance pay. The Church Conference does hereby agree that the Pastor may unilaterally terminate this Agreement provided he gives the Church Conference two weeks' notice of his intention to terminate.

         The Senior Pastor maintains that the Church's August 14, 2018 termination letter established that his termination was a unilateral termination made at the "will" of the Church Conference and, as such, fell under section 5.4 as a matter of contract law:

"Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ." (Matt. 28:19-20)
August 14, 2018
Rev John VV. ...

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