A Pittsburgh church is preparing for oral arguments in a lawsuit over the congregations right to choose their pastor.
Lawyers for the religious liberty non-profit Becket will present the case on behalf of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pittsburgh on July 12 before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The fight erupted when a pastor dismissed by the congregation sued the church for $2.6 million.
According to Becket, the church hired Rev. William David Lee in 2012 to lead its spiritual life and conduct weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Shortly after being installed, he “insisted that the church sign a contract giving him a 20-year term in office. When church members expressed concern, he assured them that they could still fire him if they believed he wasn’t leading the church in the right direction.”
Within just two years, “membership had plummeted 61 percent, Sunday worship attendance had dropped 32 percent, and tithing and offerings had decreased 39 percent, while church expenses had increased 200 percent,” Becket said.
The congregation, worried about its future, voted to remove Lee.
He then sued, and when a district court rejected his claims based on a federal court precedent that judges cannot second-guess a church’s decisions about its leadership, he appealed.
The 100-member church, founded in the late 1800s, is located in one of Pittsburgh’s poorest communities.
The pastor’s appeal contends that the dispute is strictly a “secular case involving a breach of contract.”
But the district court had ruled that the issues of “spiritual and financial stewardships as well as failures to cooperate with church leaders” would be “cause” under the provisions of the contract.
Also, the lower court ruled Lee could not show that the case could be resolved “without interference with free exercise and without excessive entanglement.”
Lee argued that his contract with the church “did not involve significant religious matters.”
He cited the goals “to attract new soles (sic) to Christ,” “to cultivate new ambassadors for Christ,” and “to transform families, neighborhoods and the city for Christ.”
“The above does not involve religion directly or significantly. These matters are all secular. They are about attendance, finances and recruitment. It is submitted, without trying to offend any religion, that the matters complained of by the defendant are identical to those of a sales manager, college president or sport-entertainment manager,” his appeal said.
The district court, however, explained that Lee himself had told the congregation that a “cause” for removal could be “if the church is not going in the direction that we think the church ought to go, if the church declines and the church is just dying.”
He conceded it was his responsibility to “make sure that the church grows and the church becomes better than the way I received it.”
Specifically, he told the congregation: “There is a clause that says that just cause, because the church is not growing, the church is stagnant, the church is not a better place. You have [the] right to call for these deacons and any member of the church to have me to vacate the pulpit.”
Lee’s claims that the court could decide the case without implicating any “ecclesiastical concern” is simply not “tenable,” the lower court found.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC in 2012 that churches have a ministerial exception to hire or fire ministers free from government interference.
“Courts can’t second-guess a church’s conclusion that a minister is doing a bad job ministering,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket.
“How would a federal judge evaluate the orthodoxy of a priest’s sermons or the fervor of a rabbi’s prayers? Judges shouldn’t be put in that impossible position, and the First Amendment says that they can’t be.”
Becket explains that Lee “argues that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply because his failure to ‘attract new souls to Christ’ was really just a ‘secular’ failure, equivalent to a sports manager failing to ‘attract new fans to the game.'”