Ex-employee loses legal battle with church
JANESVILLE A court cannot review whether a church improperly terminates an employee because the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution protects the church from state interference regarding ministerial employees.
That was the ruling Thursday by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a 2009 Walworth County case.
Kathleen DeBruin of Johnson Creek sued St. Patrick's Congregation, a Catholic church in Whitewater, claiming the church breached an employment contract. The church hired DeBruin and entered into a one-year contract July 1, 2009, with her to be its director of faith formation.
DeBruin claimed the church terminated her Oct. 5, 2009, "without good and sufficient cause as that term is defined by the contract of employment." She sought $34,150.27, which represented salary from her termination to the end of the contract.
Walworth County Judge John Race dismissed DeBruin's complaint, agreeing with St. Patrick that because DeBruin was a ministerial employee and St. Patrick is a religious institution, state court review of the church's reasoning for termination would constitute impermissible interference with St. Patrick's religious mission in violation of the First Amendment and Article 1, Section 18.
DeBruin appealed, and the court of appeals asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case directly from circuit court.
The issue, as framed by the court, was DeBruin's status as a ministerial employee.
"A court may not review whether St. Patrick improperly terminated its ministerial employee because St. Patrick's choice of who shall serve as its ministerial employee is a matter of church governance protect from state interference by the First Amendment and by Article 1, Section 18," the supreme court said.
Accordingly, DeBruin's complaint, which would require a state court to evaluate why St. Patrick terminated its ministerial employee, fails to state a claim upon which a court may grant relief. Therefore, the circuit court correctly dismissed DeBruin's complaint, and its decision is affirmed," wrote Justice Patience Roggensack for the 5-2 majority.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said DeBruin's claim did not "implicate free exercise concerns." Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson joined Bradley in her dissent.
"It would be premature to determine whether claims would foster an excessive state entanglement with religion," Bradley said.
"Because I would remand this case to the circuit court for further proceedings, I respectfully dissent."