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Allegheny

Baptist church in East End fights pastor's $2.6 million dismissal lawsuit

Stephen Huba
| Thursday, April 19, 2018, 7:57 p.m.
Members of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer hug each other during a recent worship service.
Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Members of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer hug each other during a recent worship service.
Sunday morning worship at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer.
Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Sunday morning worship at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer.
Sunday morning worship at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer.
Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Sunday morning worship at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer.
The exterior of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer.
Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
The exterior of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer.

A historic black church in Pittsburgh's East End is fighting its former pastor's $2.6 million breach of contract lawsuit, saying that the First Amendment protects its right to dismiss a leader.

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, located in Larimer, filed a reply to the pastor's lawsuit Wednesday, asking a federal appellate court to reject the Rev. William David Lee's legal challenge of his dismissal in 2015.

The struggling church is being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm specializing in church-state cases, and Wexford attorney Alan Cech of Murtagh, Hobaugh & Cech LLC.

Becket is fighting Lee's lawsuit citing the 2012 Supreme Court decision Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, in which the court unanimously upheld a house of worship's First Amendment right to hire or fire its ministers – known as the ministerial exception.

"Courts can't second-guess a church's conclusion that a minister is doing a bad job ministering," said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. "How would a federal judge evaluate the orthodoxy of a priest's sermons or the fervor of a rabbi's prayers? Judges shouldn't be put in that impossible position, and the First Amendment says that they can't be."

Founded in 1899, Sixth Mount Zion hired Lee in 2012 and approved, at his insistence, a 20-year contract early in his tenure as senior pastor, according to the reply filed in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

The contract, which spelled out Lee's salary and benefits, said that he could be fired "for cause" if there was a material breach of contract, a serious moral or criminal offense, a long-term incapacitation or another basis permitted by contract or law.

The reply alleges that under Lee's leadership, the church's registered membership dropped 61 percent, Sunday morning worship attendance declined 32 percent, and tithes and offerings dropped 39 percent – all while the church's expenditures rose nearly 200 percent, according to Becket.

When the church asked Lee to step down in 2015, he sued the church and 11 of its lay leaders for $2.6 million. A federal trial court rejected his lawsuit under the ministerial exception.

Lee appealed that decision, arguing that the First Amendment shouldn't apply because his failure to "attract new souls to Christ" was a "secular" failure, equivalent to a sports manager failing to "attract new fans to the game," according to Becket.

Oral arguments are expected later this year.

Neither Lee nor the church's current leadership could be reached for comment. The reply noted that Lee was living in New Jersey at the time he filed the lawsuit.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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