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Kelley v. Decatur Baptist Church

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

May 1, 2018




         This Title VII action for pregnancy discrimination action proceeds before the court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Complaint. (Doc. 5). In its Motion, the Defendant argues the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and ministerial exception bars prosecution of Plaintiff's claim. Based upon the following analysis, the court determines that factual disputes preclude dismissal of Plaintiff's claim pursuant to the doctrines pursued by the Defendant. Therefore, the court DENIES Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Complaint.


         The Complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations provide as follows. Defendant Decatur Baptist Church employed Plaintiff Alexandria Kelley as a maintenance and child care employee from March 17, 2015, to August 27, 2015. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 6-7). Kelley notified her employer at some point during the summer of 2015 that she was pregnant. (Id. at ¶ 9). Danny Holmes, a pastor at Decatur Baptist, became aware Kelley was pregnant, and subsequently Decatur Baptist terminated Kelley's employment on August 27, 2015. (Id. at ¶ 10). Decatur Baptist informed Kelley that it terminated her because of the pregnancy. (Id. at ¶ 11).

         In an affidavit attached to Decatur Baptist's Motion, Holmes asserts that he discharged Kelley because she engaged in sexual conduct outside of marriage - which violates biblical standards - and she sowed discord among the daycare workers. (Doc. 5-2 at ¶¶ 5-7). An affidavit by Mindy Monroe, Decatur Baptist Church Daycare Director, corroborates Holmes's assertions. (Id. at ¶ 4).

         Kelley filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e(k), 2000e-2(a)(1)-(2). The EEOC issued a determination on February 10, 2017, that Decatur Baptist discharged Kelley because of her pregnancy. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 12; Doc. 9-1).


         A. Disputed Issues of Fact Preclude the Court from Adjudicating the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine's Applicability to Kelley's Claim

         In its Motion to Dismiss, Decatur Baptist argues that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate this dispute because assessing the discharge decision involves review of religious doctrine, an exercise which violates the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), the court determines that a factual dispute precludes dispositive application of the doctrine at this juncture.

         The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const. Amend. I. Among the doctrines established under the foregoing clauses' purview, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine, requires “civil courts to abstain from deciding issues connected to ‘theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or conformity of members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.'” Myhre v. Seventh-Day Adventist Church Reform Movement Am. Union Int'l Missionary Soc'y, No. 15-13755, 2018 WL 258782, at *2 (11th Cir. Jan. 2, 2018) (quoting Crowder v. S. Baptist Convention, 828 F.2d 718, 722 (11th Cir. 1987)) (citing Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 679, 733 (1871)); Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 723 (1976); Simpson v. Wells Lamont Corp., 494 F.2d 490, 493-94 (5th Cir. 1974)[1]). In such disputes, civil courts risk, one, abridging the free exercise of religion by affecting religious conduct, and, two, “establishing” a religion by enforcing “a particular religious faction.” Myhre, 2018 WL 258782 at *2 (citing Crowder, 828 F.2d at 721).

         The First Amendment does not entirely exempt decisions by religious organizations from adjudication, as civil courts “may apply neutral principles of law to decide church disputes that ‘involve no consideration of doctrinal matters.'” Myhre, 2018 WL 258782 at *2 (quoting Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979)). However, when a matter does not present a proper occasion for the application of neutral principles, a “dispute involving the application of church doctrine and procedure to discipline one of its members is not appropriate for secular adjudication.” Myhre, 2018 WL 258782 at *2 (citing Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 723; Crowder, 828 F.2d at 726). Therefore, “civil courts may not use the guise of the ‘neutral principles' approach” to determine matters of religious doctrine, polity, governance, etc. Crowder, 828 F.2d at 725.

         Most critically at this juncture, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine incites the subject matter jurisdiction of the court to adjudicate Kelley's claim. Myhre, 2018 WL 258782 at *2 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1)); see also Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 713-14 (“‘civil courts exercise no jurisdiction'” “‘where a subject-matter of dispute'” “‘concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them'”) (quoting Watson, 13 Wall. at 733-734).

         In pertinent respects, the Eleventh Circuit establishes particular modes of review for Rule 12(b)(1) challenges to subject matter jurisdiction:

[A] motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) can be based upon either a facial or factual challenge to the complaint. If the challenge is facial, the plaintiff is left with safeguards similar to those retained when a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is raised. . . . Accordingly, the court must consider the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true. . . . A facial attack on the complaint requires the court merely to look and see if the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction, and the allegations in his complaint are taken as true for the purposes of the motion. . . . Factual attacks, on the other hand, challenge the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings, such as testimony and affidavits are considered. Furthermore, . . . the district court has the power to dismiss for lack of subject matter ...

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