A Manhattan judge has dismissed a wrongful termination suit filed by an employee of an agency of the United Methodist Church, holding that adjudicating the dispute would require the judge to violate the First Amendment by interpreting the denomination’s religious code of conduct.
Justice Charles Ramos’ Jan. 29 ruling in Mills v. Standing General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, 601640/09, is the first New York decision to examine the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch v. EEOC, 565 US—, 132 S.Ct. 694, which held that religious institutions’ choice of religious leaders is exempt from federal discrimination laws.
Ramos (See Profile) said that not only is he constitutionally barred from adjudicating the case, but that even if he weren’t, the plaintiff, W. Douglas Mills, had failed to state a claim because he had not shown that he had a contract with his employer.
Mills is a former employee of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, or GCCUIC, an arm of the United Methodist Church devoted to ecumenical work. He is also an ordained minister of the denomination. In 2005, Mills was elected associate general secretary of dialogue by the commission membership. The position focused on promoting interfaith dialogue.
The terms of Mills’ employment were given by the general commission’s personnel manual and by the church’s Book of Discipline, which requires, among other things, that employees “shall be persons who model themselves after the servanthood of Jesus Christ,” that they be “persons of genuine Christian character who love the Church and are committed to the oneness of the body of Christ,” and that they be “morally disciplined and shall uphold the doctrinal and ethical standards of The United Methodist Church.”
The Book of Discipline also says that the commission can vote to remove any officer who becomes incapacitated, is guilty of immoral behavior or “for any reason is unable to or who fails to perform the duties of the office.”
The commission’s personnel manual says that all church employees are employed at will and may be terminated at any time for any reason.
Mills was reelected associate general secretary in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In 2008, the commission chose a new general secretary, Stephen Sidorak. As general secretary, Sidorak was Mills’ superior.
The two men came into conflict when a bishop of the church forwarded Sidorak an email from Mills that criticized Sidorak. In 2009, Sidorak told the board of directors that he was terminating Mills for “unwillingness to follow instructions of [his] supervisor, ineffectiveness in performance, insubordination, untrustworthiness, undermining the ministry of the General Secretary and disrespecting and disparaging the Board of Directors” of the GCCUIC, and “repeated undiplomatic behavior reported regularly by our ecumenical partners and ongoing conduct unbecoming a ecumenist.”
Mills subsequently became senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Amarillo, Texas. Soon after he was terminated, he sued the General Commission on Christian Unity and Sidorak for breach of contract.
The commission and Sidorak moved for summary judgment, arguing that for the court to adjudicate the dispute would violate the First Amendment. They cited Hosanna-Tabor, which involved a disability discrimination case against a church by a teacher who had been designated a kind of minister, though not the leader of a congregation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that case that the church was protected by a “ministerial exception” arising from the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, which shields religious institutions’ choice of religious leaders from discrimination suits.
While the Supreme Court ruled that the ministerial exception can apply to people who are not congregation leaders, it did not set out a clear test for what kinds of positions fall under the exception. It also left open whether the exception applies to suits other than discrimination suits, like breach of contract suits.
Mills argued that his job was primarily secular, not religious. He also argued that the ministerial exception did not apply to contract suits.
Ramos rejected both arguments.
“Despite Mills’ arguments to the contrary, these are clearly religious purposes and a ‘recognized religious mission’ underlies his job description,” Ramos said, quoting Hosanna-Tabor.
“Mills held himself out as a minister by claiming the housing tax exemption and presenting himself as a minister while conducting official GCCUIC business, and by wearing his collar and ministerial attire during business travel,” he wrote.
Ramos also said that the ministerial exception applied to the contract claims, writing that “adjudication of Mills’ claims would require this Court to interpret various sections of the Book of Discipline, a constitutionally questionable endeavor at best, given the religious nature of the text.”
Furthermore, Ramos said, because “New York law does not have legal standards for ‘immoral conduct’ or ‘breach of trust,’ there is no basis in law for this Court to determine whether Mills violated these provisions.”
In any case, even if the court could adjudicate the dispute, Ramos said, Mills failed to allege there was any contract between him and his employer.
Obayomi Awoyinfa, who represented Mills, declined to comment.
Allen Roberts of Epstein Becker & Green represented the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
“Justice Ramos did hear the arguments made by both parties, and clearly understood that the secular court should not intervene in this dispute,” Roberts said.
@|Brendan Pierson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.