JEFFERSON CITY – The Missouri Supreme Court, in an April 6th opinion, reaffirmed church autonomy and religious liberty protection for religious employers.
The court’s 6-0 decision “means that Missouri continues to have strong protection for churches against government interference in religious decisions, especially related to hiring and firing,” Kansas City attorney Jonathan Whitehead told The Pathway. (Whitehead is a member of Abundant Life Baptist Church, Lee’s Summit, and a trustee for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.)
The ruling came in the case of John Doe 122 v. Marianist Province of the United States and Chaminade College Preparatory, Inc.
According to the court’s opinion, Doe alleges he was sexually abused by his counselor, Marianist Brother John Woulfe, at a Catholic high school, Chaminade College Preparatory, Inc., in the 1970s.
In 2015, Doe filed suit against the religious high school, claiming “negligent supervision” and “intentional failure to supervise clergy” by the school, among other allegations.
In its opinion, the Missouri Supreme Court dismissed Doe’s negligence claim. In doing so, the court upheld precedent from a 1997 opinion (Gibson v. Brewer) authored by Duane Benton, who was then the court’s chief justice and who is currently a member of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Kansas City.
Whitehead explained that, according to Gibson v. Brewer, courts can’t determine the negligence of ministers without infringing upon religious liberty protections upheld by the Constitution.
“Churches can decide when a minister has been a negligent minister, but courts don’t have any business deciding when you fail to meet your religious duties and obligations,” Whitehead said, summarizing the 1997 decision.
The Court’s April 6th opinion reaffirmed this view of negligence, Whitehead said. However, he added, the court also noted that churches can still be held liable in claims of “intentional misconduct” or “intentional failure to supervise.”
“I think it was an excellent decision both … in keeping the government out of deciding what constitutes the right way to minister, but also in explaining how victims in these situations can seek justice and obtain justice,” he said.
While the court’s recent decision prevents the government from dictating the duties and obligations of ministers and churches, Whitehead added that – from a biblical perspective – churches should by no means be negligent in their ministries. They should, instead, go “over and above” in supervising their ministers, as well as in caring for victims of abuse.
“Churches should be holding their ministers to a much higher standard than negligence,” Whitehead said. But, as the Missouri Supreme Court has once again affirmed, churches – rather than the government – should set this “higher standard” for ministry.