Practice Areas
Clashing Rights—Application of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine to Civil Rights Claims in Michigan

The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine
The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit state and federal civil courts from resolving disputes between religious organizations and their members that necessarily involve questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical policy. See Maciejewski v Breitenbeck, 162 Mich App 410; 413-414; 413 NW2d 65 (1987). This rule is known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”
The rationale for the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is that a civil court may not infringe on the First Amendment freedoms of religious organizations. The doctrine has been applied in numerous contexts in Michigan to protect a variety of religious practices from judicial scrutiny. Questions arise, however, when the right of a religious organization to govern its own ecclesiastical matters conflicts with the civil liberties of an individual. In that circumstance—whose constitutional right prevails?
Gilmore v Trinity Missionary Baptist Church
Last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s decision granting summary disposition in favor of a defendant under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in a case involving an age discrimination claim under the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (“ELCRA”).
In Gilmore v Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, 2018 WL 4927098, the Plaintiff, Sheila Gilmore, was the former business manager for Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. Id. at * 1. She worked at Trinity in various capacities for over 30 years. Id. In 2012, Trinity installed a new Senior Pastor. Id. Ms. Gilmore alleged that, following her installation, the Senior Pastor began asking her when she was going to retire. Id.
Three years later, the Senior Pastor discovered that Ms. Gilmore was receiving an additional five weeks of vacation pay in addition to her weekly salary. Id. Ms. Gilmore reported that the previous pastor had authorized the vacation pay for her and all other tenured employees. The Senior Pastor denied having any knowledge of the arrangement. Id. He convened a “personal ministry” to investigate Ms. Gilmore’s salary. Id.
Following the investigation, Ms. Gilmore was offered two options: (1) continue her employment without the five weeks’ vacation pay; or (2) retire. Id. Ms. Gilmore turned down both options. She was placed on a two-week administrative leave, but was notified that her employment status had changed to discharge. Id.
Ms. Gilmore filed a suit against Trinity Baptist Church and the Senior Pastor, alleging age discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation in violation of ELCRA. Id. The Defendants sought summary disposition on the basis that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine divested the court of jurisdiction. Specifically, the Defendants argued that the issues raised in the case would require court intervention on matters that went to the heart of internal church governance. Id. The trial court agreed and granted summary disposition in favor of the Defendants, finding that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to decide the case. Id.
The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed. The Court relied, in large part, on the Michigan Supreme Court’s recent decision in Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., 500 Mich 327; 901 NW2d 566 (2017). In Winkler, the Supreme Court addressed the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine defense in the context of a disability discrimination claim brought by a student who was denied access to the defendant’s parochial school. The Winkler Court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not divest a court of jurisdiction of the case, but rather, gave rise to a potential legal defense which informed the court on how to adjudicate the claim. Id. at 575.
Applying the holding from Winkler, the Gilmore Court affirmed that “the court may not substitute its opinion in lieu of that of the authorized tribunals of the church in ecclesiastical matters, and that judicial interference in the purely ecclesiastical affairs of religions organizations is improper.” Gilmore, unpub op at *2.
Importantly, however, the Court ruled that the trial court must engage in a fact-based inquiry to determine whether the resolution of the claim would necessarily require the court to decide ecclesiastical questions. Id. The Court therefore remanded the case to the trial court to determine “whether and to what extent the adjudication of the legal and factual issues presented by the plaintiff’s claim would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions.” Id. (citation omitted).
Michigan courts have yet to apply the rule from Winkler to the most difficult contexts in which the First Amendment rights of religions organizations may conflict with the civil rights of individuals as outlined in statutes such as ELCRA. However, the clear trend is away from a bright-line rule in favor of the religious organization and toward a more fact-specific analysis in which the court must examine whether a decision on the plaintiff’s civil rights claim would necessarily require a resolution of an ecclesiastical question.