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Pastor's employment contract is a religious matter, Pittsburgh church argues

Stephen Huba
| Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 11:00 a.m.

A federal appellate court likely will decide by the end of the year whether a historic black church in Pittsburgh’s East End has a First Amendment right to dismiss a pastor for lack of spiritual leadership.

Recent oral arguments in the case involving Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer and its former pastor, the Rev. William David Lee, focused on whether a minister’s employment contract with a church is a religious or secular matter.

Lee is suing the church for $2.6 million for breach of contract for dismissing him in 2015. The church fired him after attendance plummeted and church expenses doubled under his leadership, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty , a public-interest law firm that specializes in church-state cases.

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.

Last week, Lee’s attorney, Gregg Zeff, told a three-judge panel of the 3 rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia that the ministerial exception does not apply in this case because the employment contract was a secular concern.

Zeff drew a sharp distinction between doctrinal matters and secular employment matters, which, he said, can be adjudicated by the courts.

“There is no argument being made by (Sixth Mount Zion) that (Lee) gave bad sermons, interpreted religious doctrine inappropriately or presided over religious ceremonies in some inappropriate manner,” Zeff said in his reply brief.

“Rather, this matter involves the question of whether or not the attendance and financial issues plaguing (the church) were the fault of (Lee). These are secular, factual questions that are proper to be presented to a jury,” he said.

The appellate judges tried to conceptualize how a trial would decide issues involving church attendance, membership and giving – issues that turn on a pastor’s stewardship and fitness as a leader.

Becket senior counsel Daniel Blomberg took up that theme, saying that such issues are inherently religious and, therefore, outside the purview of secular courts.

“A big part of (the church’s) religious exercise isn’t just preaching. It isn’t just baptisms. It’s also doing things like running the food kitchen,” he said.

“If we accept the view that says only what’s said from the pulpit is something that courts can’t look behind, we’re diminishing the ability for religious exercise to be a fully-orbed thing, and we restrict the sphere of religious autonomy that … is woven into the fabric of the First Amendment,” he said.

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 church’s reply brief.

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 brief alleges that under Lee’s leadership, the church’s registered membership dropped by 61 percent, Sunday morning worship attendance declined by 32 percent, and tithes and offerings dropped by 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.

Blomberg said the case, although narrow in scope, has important implications for the separation of church and state and for “protecting those different spheres of autonomy.”

The appeal will be the first time since Hosanna-Tabor for the 3 rd Circuit to consider the First Amendment right of churches to select their ministers.

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

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