Appeals court upholds Rabbi’s firing with differing views on ministerial exception

In Ballaban v. Bloomington Jewish Community, (IN App., Jan. 17, 2013), a 3-judge Indiana appellate court, with each judge writing a separate opinion, rejected a rabbi’s claim that he had been wrongfully dismissed as congregational rabbi before the end of his 3-year contract.  The congregation claimed that the firing was the result of complaints about the rabbi’s angry outbursts and hostile behavior and his placing the tax exempt status of the synagogue at risk by accepting a donation intended for a single recipient and assuring the donor it would be tax deductible. Rabbi Steven Ballaban claimed he was fired in retaliation for his reporting to authorities possible improper conduct by a teacher accused of massaging children under their clothes. The trial court held that while it is likely that Indiana law bars discharge of a member of the clergy for reporting child abuse, plaintiff failed to show that is why he was fired. On appeal, the congregation urged that the trial court was correct because the ministerial exception applies to require dismissal of the suit.  All 3 appeals court judges would affirm the trial court’s dismissal of Ballaban’s suit, but each on different reasoning.

Judge Brown held that the court need not decide whether the ministerial exception applies when a minister’s employment was terminated for reporting child abuse or neglect since the ministerial exception does apply to firings for the other reasons put forward by the congregation, and on appeal Ballaban (appearing pro se) does not challenge the termination of his employment on these grounds. Judge Bailey concurred, arguing:

We should not, and cannot, be drawn into deciding whether an individual engaged in conduct becoming a spiritual leader. Accordingly, the ministerial exception applies and our discussion should proceed no further, despite Rabbi Ballaban’s vigorous efforts to recast the dispute as purely secular conduct involving a statutory duty to report.

Judge Vaidik concurred, saying that: “the ministerial exception does not allow a congregation to fire a spiritual leader who refuses to commit a criminal offense… [However] the designated evidence does not reveal that the reason for Ballaban’s termination was his child-abuse reporting.”