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09/30/94 SHARON GABRIEL v. IMMANUEL EVANGELICAL

September 30, 1994

SHARON GABRIEL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
IMMANUEL EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County. No. 93L560. Honorable Stuart H. Shiffman, Judge Presiding.

As Corrected November 22, 1994.

Honorable James A. Knecht, J., Honorable Frederick S. Green, J., Honorable Robert J. Steigmann, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Knecht

JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, Sharon Gabriel, filed suit for breach of contract after the defendant, Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc., withdrew its offer to employ her as a parochial school kindergarten teacher. Plaintiff's complaint alleged the offer to employ her was accepted by her before it was improperly withdrawn by church hierarchy for nonecclesiastical reasons. The trial court dismissed the complaint on first amendment grounds. (U.S. Const., amend. I.) Plaintiff appeals, contending adjudication of her complaint would not infringe upon the church's free exercise rights under the first amendment.

The facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff's complaint alleged on March 24, 1992, defendant extended her an offer of employment as a tenured kindergarten teacher for a yearly salary of $19,709, and associated fringe benefits. The written offer of employment was in the form of a "divine call," which is the method by which the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (Missouri Synod) solicits clergy and teachers for its churches and parochial schools.

The complaint further alleged plaintiff accepted the "call" on March 10, 1993, by signing the document and delivering it to the principal of defendant's school at his office. Despite her acceptance, however, defendant later refused to honor any of its terms and failed to employ her as a teacher and, by reason of the failure to honor the contract, plaintiff suffered damages of $650,000.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss on first amendment grounds. Defendant is a not-for-profit religious corporation engaged in the preaching and teaching of the Bible and Lutheran confessions as set forth in the constitution of the Missouri Synod. The motion alleged plaintiff is a commissioned minister of religion who was bound by the constitution and bylaws of the congregation and the Missouri Synod, and the church's constitution makes the congregation the supreme authority as to its internal and external administration.

The motion to dismiss also argued, in addition to acceptance of the "call," each commissioned minister of religion must be "installed" by appropriate church officials before the employment relationship becomes effective. After plaintiff accepted the "call," but prior to the constitutionally required installation, the congregation, in accordance with its constitution and bylaws, voted to withdraw the issuance of the call on May 23, 1993, because plaintiff had not indicated her acceptance of it as of March 6, 1993, at which time the school board unanimously recommended to the congregation that issuance of the call be withdrawn.

The motion concluded the call had been withdrawn in conformity with the rules of the congregation's constitution, this was a matter of ecclesiastical concern finally determined by defendant through its duly constituted voters assembly and, for this reason, the court was without authority to adjudicate the complaint under the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and article I, section 3, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 3).

The trial court granted the motion to dismiss finding the contract in question was clearly a religious document, replete with references to church doctrine, religious teachings, and church policies. The court concluded the decision to reconsider the hiring of plaintiff was a church decision discussed and voted upon in church meetings, and whether the defendant followed the required procedure in rejecting plaintiff's employment was not for a civil court to consider because it would entail impermissible review of the decision-making process and subjective criteria used by the church in reaching its decision.

Plaintiff contends this lawsuit does not involve first amendment issues but is a simple breach of contract action over which a civil court has subject-matter jurisdiction. In plaintiff's view, defendant offered her a contract for employment which plaintiff accepted prior to defendant's revocation of the offer on nonecclesiastical grounds. Plaintiff maintains since the reason for revocation of the offer is purely secular, no first amendment issues are involved. We disagree.

The basic freedom of religion is guaranteed not only to individuals but also to churches in their collective capacities which must have "power to decide for themselves, free from State interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." ( Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church (1952), 344 U.S. 94, 116, 97 L. Ed. 120, 136, 73 S. Ct. 143, 154.) Ecclesiastical decisions are generally inviolate; "civil courtsare bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law." Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976), 426 U.S. 696, 713, 49 L. Ed. 2d 151, 165, 96 S. Ct. 2372, 2382.

The right to choose ministers without government restriction underlies the well-being of the religious community. (See Kedroff, 344 U.S. at 116, 97 L. Ed. at 136, 73 S. Ct. at 154.) The Supreme Court has consistently concluded certain civil rights protected in secular settings are not sufficiently compelling to overcome certain religious interests. (See Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop (1929), 280 U.S. 1, 16, 74 L. Ed. 131, 136-37, 50 S. Ct. 5, 7.) "[Decisions of church authorities concerning] the essential qualifications of [clergy] and whether the candidate possesses them * * * although ...


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