Orr Not: Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Bars Pastor’s Claims Arising from Internal Sexual Harassment Investigation

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Illinois Courts continue to respect ecclesiastical boundaries in matters of internal church governance. This year, an Illinois court ruled a pastor disciplined for sexual harassment could not seek judicial relief arising from his church denomination’s internal investigation of a sexual harassment claim against him. Instead, the court deferred to the religious institution’s internal mechanisms as a matter of First Amendment “ecclesiastical abstention,” since all statements at issue were made within such internal church proceedings. This court ruling underscores:

  • Civil courts’ reluctance to get involved in purely internal ecclesiastical disputes;
  • The importance of maintaining confidentiality within internal disciplinary mechanisms;
  • The value of carefully following a religious groups’ internal documented procedures for misconduct allegations.

Background Facts – Orr v. Fourth Episcopal District AME Church, et al.

Plaintiff is a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He filed his complaint against his AME Church District, individual church leaders who handled the investigation, and the woman who accused him of sexual harassment. The case arose after the accuser notified her pastor that Plaintiff had made unwelcome sexual advances to her, in connection with her candidacy for admission to the AME Church ministry.

As detailed in the Court’s ruling (2018 IL App. 4th 170469), the AME Church denomination’s “Book of Discipline” extensively covers church doctrine, church membership, the clergy, and worship methods. The AME’s Book of Discipline not only prohibits sexual harassment, it also sets forth a complex system for reporting and adjudicating claims of sexual harassment committed by clergy members. This system includes procedures for an internal report, then a formal complaint, and then an investigation by a confidential “Judicial Committee.” In the case of a substantiated complaint, the Church “Trial Committee” serves as the trier of fact. The Trial Committee has additional authority to impose punishments like pastoral suspension or termination. There is also an internal church appeals process and other safeguards for promoting “due process” rights of the accused.

The AME Church District followed its extensive internal church procedures with respect to the sexual harassment allegations against Plaintiff, up through the Judicial Committee level. The Judicial Committee found sufficient evidence to support the accuser’s claim against Plaintiff, and referred the case to the Trial Committee. The case stalled at that level, however, subsequent to Plaintiff’s filing of his lawsuit. Meanwhile, Plaintiff was moved to another church post, and the parties disputed whether such move was related to the case or not.

Plaintiff claimed in his court pleadings that the AME Church District had failed to properly follow its Book of Discipline’s procedural requirements, that he had been defamed and otherwise damaged thereby through the investigative process, and that the court should determine whether he actually engaged in sexual harassment as charged. But the trial court declined to address Plaintiff’s claims, granting summary judgment to all defendants. Plaintiff appealed.

Legal Protection for Church’s Confidential Internal Proceedings

The legal linchpin for this case is its First Amendment constitutional dimension: whether the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine bars Plaintiff’s claims or whether, instead, the countervailing “neutral principles of law” doctrine allows them.

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prohibits courts from involvement with a religious institution’s worship, theological traditions, or internal religious governance such as hierarchical denominational decisions. The basis for such doctrine lies within the First and Fourteenth Amendments’ protection for religious institutions, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976), in which the Court refused to disturb an ecclesiastical tribunal’s final decision about one of its spiritual leaders. Under this constitutionally grounded doctrine, religious institutions thus may freely determine their own matters of doctrine and worship.

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not an absolute bar from judicial intervention in church matters. Rather, where such disputes involve matters of corporate governance, or the conduct of religious institutions in view of obligations to third parties, courts frequently use “neutral principles” of law to determine the validity of such actions. Accordingly, while courts may not interpret a religious institution’s sacred texts, courts do have broad powers to ensure that they play by the rules. More specifically, courts may require worshipping nonprofits to follow their own properly adopted bylaws, policies, and other governing documents, as required under applicable state nonprofit law. In other words, courts may not adjudicate religious doctrinal matters and strictly “in-house” leadership matters (ecclesiastical abstention), but they may get involved and decide rights and liabilities of religious institutions (neutral principles). The boundary lines are not necessarily clear.

In Orr, the Court recognized that “freedom of religion is guaranteed not only to individuals but also to churches in their collective capacities, which must have the ‘power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine’” (citing Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952)). Citing the Illinois appellate decision in Stepek v. Doe, 392 Ill. App. 3d 739 (2009), which in turn cited Milivojevich above, the Orr Court further recognized that churches may discipline clergy through their own internal tribunals, with resulting decisions that are binding on secular courts.

The Stepek case involved two brothers (“Does”) who accused a Catholic priest of sexual molestation. While the Church’s internal investigation of such charges was pending, the priest sued the two brothers and the Church for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Rejecting these claims, the court ruled, “Since the only defamatory publication allegedly made by the Does was made to the Church itself within internal disciplinary proceedings, the absolute first amendment protection for statements made by Church members in an internal church disciplinary proceeding precludes the circuit court from exercising jurisdiction in this matter.”

The Orr Court determined the facts in the instant case were similar to Stepek. As the Court observed, “All of these communications occurred within the internal disciplinary proceedings of the AME Church. The first amendment’s protection of internal religious disciplinary proceedings would be meaningless if republishing allegations of sexual abuse within those proceedings could be tested in civil court.” Plaintiff complaints that the AME Church failed to follow its Book of Discipline was not relevant to the Court’s analysis “because this occurred within the internal disciplinary procedures of the church.” In the absence of any evidence that the defendants communicated the sexual harassment allegations to anyone outside of the Church’s internal disciplinary proceedings, the constitutional ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied to bar his court claims.

Correspondingly, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that his claims could be resolved judicially under neutral principles of law. Even though religious doctrine would not necessarily be implicated here, “resolving this dispute would involve the secular court interfering with the Church’s internal disciplinary proceedings” (quoting Stepek). The Court concluded that it was “bound to step aside and permit the church o consider the authenticity of claims of sexual harassment.”

Takeaways

Orr is an important reminder that religious entities must handle allegations of sexual harassment (and other misconduct) confidentially. Because there was no credible evidence that the sexual harassment allegations against Plantiff were communicated beyond the Church’s internal disciplinary proceedings, Plaintiff’s only viable claim was solely within that church context. Had there been communications to third parties by the accuser or the church leaders handling the matter, Plaintiff may well have had actionable claims for defamation and other reputational harm. Ironically, Plaintiff self-initiated court case accomplished such effect, through Plaintiff’s publication of the sexual harassment allegations against him as a matter of public record.

Another significant takeaway for churches and other organizations is to have high quality procedures in place for receiving and handling claims of sexual or other misconduct. Especially in our current #MeToo era, a differently-minded court may be inclined to construe such matter as judicially permissible under the neutral principles of law approach. With respect to Plaintiff’s case, it also seemed quite compelling that the Church had such extensive procedural mechanisms in place for addressing clergy misconduct, thereby supporting the court’s refusal to consider the case as a secular matter.

Third, and on a related note, it is vitally important that organizations handle allegations of sexual harassment very carefully, and consistently with their own carefully documented procedures, as the AME Church apparently did here. Significantly, the relevant information was received, written up, investigated, and adjudicated confidentially. The Church’s evident ample regard for due process further reflected the fairness of the judicial outcome here, consistent with its own rules, notwithstanding its First Amendment protection. Churches and denominations may encounter legal difficulties when they fail to act consistently with their own rules, and plaintiffs may have success holding religious entities accountable under “neutral principles of law” standards.

Finally, a caution: Sexual harassment remains a highly serious matter warranting effective policies, training, and attentiveness as preventive measures. Insurance coverage for potential sexual harassment claims may be important, and wise leadership can be pivotal. Indeed, the alleged victim may have had her own viable court claim against the Church for its agents’ alleged misconduct and her resulting harm. In addition, had false allegations against Plaintiff been communicated outside the Church (or if the organization at issue not been a religious institution), Plaintiff’s defamation and other reputational harm claims for judicial relief could very well have stood. Careful safeguards are thus of critical importance for the accuser, the accused, and the organizations they serve.