Wednesday, September 26, 2018
I just blogged about the ministerial exception of the First Amendment, and now here's another case discussing it! This recent case out of California, Sumner v. Simpson University, C077302, was a dispute over Sumner's dismissal for insubordination. Sumner sued for breach of her employment contract. Simpson argued that the ministerial exception of the First Amendment protected its contractual decision from judicial examination. The court agreed that Simpson was a religious group and also found that Sumner was a ministerial employee even though she wasn't technically titled a minister. Her job duties at the university required her to have a doctorate in ministry or a related field and included promoting the university through preaching appearances.
However, the court still permitted Sumner's breach of contract claim to go forward, based on the fact that the ministerial exception should not bar all contract actions involving a religious group and its ministerial employees. Rather, it should only operate to bar those causes of action that would require the court to decide religious matters. Sumner was purportedly terminated for insubordination, which was defined by the faculty handbook incorporated into Sumner's contract. The alleged insubordination involved Sumner's violation of the university's written protocol. Sumner, however, alleged that she was never provided with the written protocol and so her conduct could not be found to be insubordinate. Resolving this dispute would not require "wad[ing] into doctrinal waters," because Sumner's religious qualifications weren't at issue and the dispute didn't concern Simpson's religious autonomy.