Washington high court splits in ministerial exception case

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Erdman v. Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church, (WA Sup. Ct., Oct. 4, 2012), the Washington Supreme Court in a case producing three opinions (lead opinionconcurrencedissent/concurrence) dismissed a former church employee’s claim against the church for negligent supervision and negligent retention of its minister. The court also remanded plaintiff’s Title VII claims for further consideration in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision.  The case grew out of a dispute between plaintiff, Angela Erdman (the church’s executive for stewardship and chief financial officer) and the church’s senior pastor, Dr. Mark Toone, over tax, accounting and reimbursement issues relating to tours to religious and historical sites that Toone led for the church. The dispute led to Erdman’s firing.

Erdman claimed that Toone intimidated her, verbally abused her, and threatened her in connection with her employment. She filed a complaint with the Presbytery of Olympia, which ruled against her, and she failed to appeal that decision within the church hierarchy. All the judges of the Washington Supreme Court held that Erdman’s negligent supervision/retention claims should be dismissed because civil courts must accept the ruling of an hierarchical church’ governing body on questions of discipline, faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law. In addition, four judges in the lead opinion held that Erdman’s claims must be dismissed under the ministerial exception doctrine. The concurrence concluded that it was not necessary to reach the ministerial exception question. Four judges in the dissent/concurrence held that the ministerial exception doctrine does not apply here, and that the court should use the “neutral principles of law” approach in deciding the case, saying that this is the “best way to protect churches from judicial interference and individuals from the categorical deprivation of their rights based on the sectarian nature of the tortfeasors.”