Friday, November 10, 2023

Pastor's Breach of Contract Suit Dismissed on Ecclesiastical Abstention Grounds

In Craver v. Faith Lutheran Church, (TX App., Nov. 8, 2023), a Texas state appeals court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine requires dismissal of a pastor's suit for breach of contract and fraudulent inducement brought against the church that was his former employer. After the church's executive board received complaints against the pastor, the church entered a severance agreement with the pastor. The pastor contends that the agreement included an assurance that the allegations against him would not be spread throughout the congregation. The court said in part:

Craver argues his case presents a “run-of-the mill” civil dispute, which can be resolved by application of neutral principles of law and without reference to religious matters. He contends: “While Faith Lutheran’s decision to terminate [him] is generally unreviewable, [his] claims have nothing to do with that and are instead about Faith Lutheran’s obligations under a secular, civil contract not to make certain statements.”

We disagree that church matters can be so cleanly and completely severed. Instead, the substance and nature of Craver’s fraudulent inducement and breach of contract claims are “inextricably intertwined” with matters of Faith Lutheran’s church governance.... [B]oth claims rely on circumstances surrounding contract formation and it is those circumstances which implicate the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine...

[W]e cannot untwine recommendations Church executives made in the course of church governance from the allegedly fraudulent representations that form the basis of Craver’s lawsuit.