“Church Autonomy” Losing in New Mexico, Washington

There’s good news and bad news this week on the Hosanna Watch.

Good: The New Mexico Court of Appeals just issued a commonsensical opinion denying the Seventh-Day Adventists’ claim that the “church autonomy doctrine” allowed church officials to fire an employee–thus breaching her contract and retaliating against her complaints of sexual harassment–without court review. And in Washington State, a gay teacher’s lawsuit against a Catholic school that fired him for getting married continues.

Bad: The New Mexico court mistakenly accepted the idea that the “church autonomy doctrine” is based on the First Amendment, even though the Court did not adopt the theory of church autonomy in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. And the courts will be resolving Catholic school hirings and firings about morality for a long time.

The New Mexico lawsuit involved Melissa Galetti, who was a principal and a teacher at the Adventists’ Crestview Elementary School in Albuquerque. After Galetti complained that her supervisor, Derral W. Reeve, harassed her, the Adventists reprimanded him. Thereafter, Galetti, who had been told she would be renewed for the 2011-2012 school year, was fired, well after the May 1, 2011 notification deadline established by her contract. Galetti sued for breach of contract, retaliatory discharge and violation of the New Mexico Human Rights Act, intentional interference with contract and civil conspiracy, and defamation.

The district court dismissed the complaint without explaining its reasoning. The appeals court reversed. It first assumed, without arguing, that Galetti was a minister, and then rejected the church’s argument that accordingly the First Amendment didn’t allow any review of Galetti’s lawsuit. The “church autonomy doctrine is [not] so easily triggered,” it held. The breach of contract claim was purely secular, involving only the question whether Galetti had been timely notified of the non-renewal and termination of her contract, and therefore could proceed.

The contract ruling makes an important point, which other courts have also recognized; the First Amendment does not authorize religious employers voluntarily to enter into contracts and then to breach them without review or penalty.

The appeals court also allowed the lawsuits for retaliatory discharge, violation of the New Mexico Human Rights Act, intentional interference with contract, civil conspiracy and defamation against Reeve and two other school employees in their individual capacities to proceed. The church defendants had argued that any claims in any way connected to Galetti’s firing as a teacher could not proceed in court. But this is nonsensical. Neither the ministerial exception nor the “church autonomy doctrine” permits church employees to breach contracts or commit torts.

Meanwhile in Washington State, Mark Zmuda’s wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit against Eastside Catholic School and the Archdiocese of Seattle continues for now after a state judge ruled the First Amendment did not bar court jurisdiction. Zmuda, a vice principal and swim coach at the school, was fired after he married his same-sex partner. There will be a lot more to report about this case and other similar cases around the country because the Catholic bishops have decided zealously to limit their employees’ personal freedoms by enforcing strict moral clauses against them.

In all the reporting on the Zmuda case, most offensive to me is Zmuda’s revelation that the church told him to either divorce his partner or resign; the school offered to cover the cost of a “commitment ceremony” for the couple if they agreed to obtain a civil divorce. Divorce is usually a firable offense for (heterosexual) Catholic teachers and is a sin in Catholic theology. Moreover it is a personal occasion for sorrow and disappointment, not something one would sensibly recommend to partners who just won the legal right to same-sex marriage. Yet the Catholic Church, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, believes that its decisions about things like employees’ marital status are a matter of church autonomy.

Which is why the theory finds no home in the First Amendment.

Leslie C. Griffin

Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. Professor Griffin, who teaches constitutional law, is known for her interdisciplinary work in law and religion. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.