United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
N. JOHNSON, JR., UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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).
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).
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).
Disputed Issues of Fact Preclude the Court from Adjudicating
the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine's Applicability to
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.
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)). 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).
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.
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
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 ...