Appeals court upholds Baptist church autonomy in picking pastor

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church Courtesy Becket CNA Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. Courtesy Becket.

In a 3-0 decision Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled that a historic black Baptist church in Pittsburgh has the right to pick its pastor without government involvement.

The decision affirmed a lower district court's ruling that Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church was free to dismiss pastor David Lee, who had been chosen as pastor in 2012. Lee and the church had signed a 20-year contract, which allowed for termination "for cause," including if Lee failed to perform his job well.  

The small African-American congregation voted to dismiss Lee in 2015, following a nearly 40 percent decline in attendance and donations, and a 200 percent increase in church expenses under his leadership. Lee then sued the church for $2.6 million, saying that his failures were secular rather than spiritual in nature.

In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia said that evaluating Lee's performance as pastor "requires a determination of what constitutes adequate spiritual leadership." This is not an assessment for courts to carry out, the ruling said, because it "would impermissibly entangle the court in religious governance and doctrine prohibited by the Establishment Clause."

Religious liberty advocates applauded the ruling.

"The government has no right to entangle itself in choosing a church's ministers," said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the church in court. "As the Supreme Court unanimously ruled six years ago, houses of worship have the right to choose who leads the flock."

In its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the "ministerial exception" principle drawn from the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The principle allows churches to make employment decisions without government intervention.

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