The Kentucky Supreme Court recently issued two decisions strongly affirming the rights of tenured faculty members at religious institutions and echoing arguments made by AAUP in an amicus brief filed with the court. In two companion cases the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that religious institutions are generally bound by tenure contracts, including faculty handbooks, and that faculty members may sue if these contracts are breached, even in some instances in which the faculty member is a minister.
One of the two cases involved Laurence Kant, a tenured Professor of Religious Studies at Lexington Theological Seminary, which employed him to teach courses on several religious and historical subjects. In 2009, the Seminary terminated Kant’s employment in violation of the terms of the Faculty Handbook. Kant challenged his termination by filing suit for breach of contract and breach of implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing. Similarly, the Seminary terminated Professor Jimmy Kirby, who filed suit for breach of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, and for race discrimination in violation of Kentucky law. Two trial courts summarily dismissed Kant's and Kirby’s claims, holding that the contract claims were barred by the “ministerial exception”—a judicially created "principle whereby the secular courts have no competence to review the employment-related claims of ministers against their employing faith communities[.]" Kirby at * 11. The lower courts also held that they had no jurisdiction to interpret the contract under the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” under which "the secular courts have no jurisdiction over ecclesiastical controversies and . . . will not interfere with religious judicature or with any decision of a church tribunal relating to its internal affairs, as in matters of discipline or excision, or of purely ecclesiastical cognizance." Kirby at * 53 (see link below). The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the decisions below and both professors filed separate appeals with the Kentucky Supreme Court.
AAUP filed an amicus brief in support of Kant’s appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, arguing that the Seminary could not use the ministerial exception to avoid its voluntarily negotiated tenure contract obligations. Specifically, AAUP argued that the issue at the heart of the case—whether the contract permitted the Seminary to eliminate tenure and terminate Kant due to financial exigency—could be decided based on “neutral principles of law” that would not require the Court to interfere with the Seminary’s constitutional right to select its own ministers or otherwise to intrude on matters of church doctrine. While the Court did not formally join the Kant and Kirby cases, it heard arguments on the same day and relied upon the arguments in AAUP’s amicus brief in reaching its decision in both Kirby and Kant.
On April 17, 2014, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued unanimous decisions in both cases. Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, 2012-SC-000502-DG, 2014 Ky. LEXIS 160 (Ky. April 17, 2014); Kirby v. Lexington Theological Seminary, 2012-SC-000519-DG, 2014 Ky. LEXIS 161 (Ky. April 17, 2014). Although the Court adopted the ministerial exception doctrine as outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012), it flatly rejected the reasoning of the Kentucky courts below and permitted both professors to proceed with their cases. The Court viewed the ministerial exception as narrow, contrary to the expansive interpretation offered by Seminary. In particular, the Court stated “We reject a categorical application of the ministerial exception that would treat all seminary professors as ministers under the law.” Kant at *2-3. Instead, the Court emphasized that the “primary focus under the law is on the nature of the particular employee's work for the religious institution.” Kant at *22. Accordingly, the court found that Kant was not a minister, because he taught history of religion, a primarily secular field. The court concluded that “When an employee operates in a non-ministerial capacity . . . the employee should be entitled to full legal redress. As a result, the ministerial exception does not bar Kant's contractual claims.” Kant at *23.
The court explicitly stated that neither the ministerial exception nor the related ecclesiastical abstention doctrine would preclude claims where employees, and even ministers (like Kirby), sought to enforce contractual rights not involving an interpretation of church doctrine. In language echoing AAUP’s amicus brief, the court explained:
"[W]hen the case merely involves a church, or even a minister, but does not require the interpretation of actual church doctrine, courts need not invoke the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine." Indeed, if "neutral principles of law" or "objective, well-established concepts . . . familiar to lawyers and judges" may be applied, the case—on its face—presents no constitutional infirmity. Of course, neutral principles of law can be applied to the breach of contract claim presented in the instant case; but, more importantly, Kant's claim involves no consideration of or entanglement in church doctrine. We reiterate that the intent of ecclesiastical abstention is not to render "civil and property rights . . . unenforceable in the civil court simply because the parties involved might be the church and members, officers, or the ministry of the church."
Kant at *24-25.