James W. Cushing
James W. Cushing ()

Church and state have always had a give-and-take relationship and that relationship was put to the test again in the April 15 opinion issued by Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Lisa M. Rau in the recent case Warnick v. All Saints Episcopal Church, Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Case No.: 111201539, 714 EDA 2014.

In Warnick, the plaintiff, the Rev. Jeremy M. Warnick, an Episcopal priest, brought suit against defendants comprising his former parish, All Saints Episcopal Church in Rhawnhurst in Philadelphia, the Right Rev. Charles E. Bennison (bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania), and three parishioners of All Saints Episcopal Church for claims more or less sounding in defamation and contract. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the court and appealed by Warnick.

It is undisputed by Warnick that he, as an Episcopal priest, is required, in his role as priest, to comply with the standards and discipline of the Episcopal Church and that his ecclesiastical authority while serving in the Diocese of Pennsylvania was the bishop. Warnick also acknowledged that the bishop has authority to grant or revoke a priest’s license to engage in official ministerial functions in his diocese and must approve any contract for the employment of any priest by any parish within his diocese.

During Warnick’s tenure as parish priest of All Saints Episcopal Church, disputes arose between him and members of the parish. The aforesaid disputes centered on the following: (1) Warnick’s changes to the worship service; (2) Warnick’s decisions on how to use the parish’s endowment fund; (3) Warnick’s accessibility to his flock; (4) Warnick’s Facebook post regarding a “sexual position quiz”; and, perhaps most controversial of all, (5) Warnick allegedly living with a paramour in the rectory while already married to another woman (Warnick did eventually marry his paramour after he divorced his wife, but did so in a Methodist church instead of an Episcopal church as he did not comply with Episcopal canons on remarriage after divorce). The parish and Warnick were not able to resolve the above-described disputes. Eventually, the vestry (the controlling board of laypeople at the parish) voted to retain a priest only part-time instead of the full-time Warnick. Warnick admitted that posting the material described above on Facebook and living with a woman to whom he was not married could be considered conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, but he asserted that only an ecclesiastical court could make such a determination.

Ultimately, the dispute between the parish and Warnick reached the point where the parish sought the intervention of the bishop, who revoked Warnick’s license to function as priest in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. According to the Episcopal Church’s canons (internal church law), Warnick’s being canonically a resident in the Diocese of Arizona limited the ability of the bishop to investigate the substance of the disputes, so revoking Warnick’s license was the bishop’s only practical choice to resolve the dispute.

In order to announce his decision, the bishop issued a letter to the parish indicating that he revoked Warnick’s license and that accusations were made that could amount to conduct unbecoming of the clergy, but as he could not verify their truth or falsity, the extent of his authority was to simply revoke Warnick’s license. An email was sent by one parishioner to another noting that some people were dissatisfied with Warnick and repeating the allegation that he lived with a paramour, but qualified it by saying, “I am not saying it is true or not true.” Despite being terminated from his employment with the parish, the parish compensated Warnick for his entire employment contract.

Warnick filed a canonical complaint against the bishop within the ecclesiastical courts but was unsuccessful, which led to his initiating the civil action discussed herein.

The court’s analysis of this matter began with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s provision proscribing government interference with religion. Citing the long history of First Amendment jurisprudence, the court unequivocally acknowledged that a religious body has virtually absolute control over who can function as its ministers and by what standards they are to be measured and employed. The court recognized that the law and the courts must defer to a religion’s decision to employ or not employ a minister and that such a decision is the exclusive province of a religion, otherwise the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is irreparably compromised as choosing its ministers is one of the most fundamental actions a religion can take in furtherance of its worship, practice, teaching and administration. Therefore, the court ruled that Warnick’s contract claims, which attempt to have the court analyze the parish and/or the bishop’s decision to terminate Warnick’s employment, must be dismissed as this would require the court to impermissibly delve into a religion’s employment practices. Similarly, the court also dismissed Warnick’s defamation claims as they, too, require the court to impermissibly entangle itself in religious issues through attempting to interpret church canons in order to determine whether the statements were defamatory. Such an analysis is beyond the scope of the court’s authority under the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom from government intrusion.

Although Warnick’s claims fail under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the court made it clear that his claims would have also failed regardless of the First Amendment. The court did not believe the statements made were defamatory. First, the statements were true as they merely identified the existence of a dispute on certain issues but did not comment on the truth or falsity of those issues. Regardless, Warnick admits to the Facebook post and residing in the same house with a woman who was not his wife. Indeed, Warnick himself participated in the letter issued by the bishop referred to above by helping to distribute it to the congregation of the parish. As far as the contract claims are concerned, the court also ruled that the church had no obligation to renew Warnick’s employment contract upon its conclusion. Although the bishop revoked Warnick’s license to minister, he was still compensated for the entire length of his contract and permitted to live in the rectory for an additional six months thereafter. Therefore, even if his employment contract was breached, he suffered no damages. Further, Warnick alleged that the bishop interfered with his employment contract with the parish; however, the court rejected this argument, noting that Warnick acknowledged that the bishop must approve any contract for the employment of any priest by any parish within his diocese. Therefore, the bishop cannot interfere with a contract in which he is involved. Finally, Warnick’s claims that the defendants engaged in civil conspiracy were dismissed as none of the other claims he made against them survived the summary judgment process.

When it comes to a religion’s hiring or firing clergy and/or ministers, personnel of a religion have virtually sole and exclusive control. Otherwise, the government, through the court, would have impermissible entanglement with religion, which is barred by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Warnick’s claims were ultimately unsuccessful as he asked the court to involve itself in a church’s decision to terminate a clergyman, which would unlawfully compromise the church’s right to choose its ministers and, consequently, practice its religion as it wishes.

James W. Cushing is an associate at the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, research attorney for Legal Research Inc. and sits on the board of directors of the Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia.