Would Alabama Courts Review Termination of LGBT Ministers?



Recently, the United Methodist Church conducted its General Conference during which the issue of LGBT clergy was a central theological dispute.  That dispute is discussed extensively in this article:  The Divided Methodist Church  In connection with the conference, 111 pastors, deacons and candidates for ministry came out as lesbian, gay or bisexual.  Defying church ban, dozens of Methodist clergy come out as gay and lesbian  Those clergy members are “essentially daring their supervisors to discipline them.”

As I understand the procedural nature of potential discipline, each United Methodist Church Conference will be responsible for imposing any possible discipline.  Nevertheless, the lawyer in me wondered if Alabama courts would review any decision by a Conference to terminate the employment of an LGBT minister.

Coincidentally, the Alabama Supreme Court recently issued a decision concerning removal of a minister.  St. Union Baptist Church, Inc. v. Howard, No. 1141132, 2016 WL 2848391 (May 13, 2016).  Importantly, Howard was not a case involving an LGBT minister.  Instead, it involved efforts by members of a congregation to terminate a pastor because of issues such as “lack of spiritual and financial leadership.”  Justice Lynn Stuart authored an opinion in which the Court found that the dispute was “was a spiritual and ecclesiastical matter in which the court could not interfere without violating both federal and state constitutional provisions.”

The Howard decision closely mirrored the extensive analysis provided by the Supreme Court in Ex parte Bole, 103 So.3d 40 (Ala. 2012).  Bole was a case involving a United Methodist minister who sued for defamation and the tort of outrage after he was removed by the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.  The Court refused to review those claims because they were “intertwined with the underlying investigation by the Conference, with the resolution, and with the Conference’s ultimate decision to remove” the pastor from ministry.  Bole, 103 So.3d at 72.

Based upon Howard and Bole, I think it is unlikely that an Alabama state court would accept a legal challenge filed by a minister removed from the pulpit because of his or her LGBT status.  Howard recognizes a slim possibility that a claim for purely contractual disputes might be justiciable.  But, where the dispute centers on spiritual or ecclesiastical matters, such as the theological propriety of LGBT ministers, I think the odds are unlikely that the courts will interfere with church decisions.