Fired pastor can pursue breach-of-contract claim

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Kentucky appeals court has reinstated a fired pastor’s breach-of-contract claim, rejecting the church’s argument that the dispute over wages and benefits is ecclesiastical and, thus, can’t be decided by a court.

Steven B. Crymes began serving as pastor for Grace Hope Presbyterian Church in Louisville in May 2005, entering into an employment contract that outlined his salary and benefits. The church fired him in February 2010.

Crymes sued the church in Jefferson County Circuit Court, alleging that the church did not pay him all the wages and benefits due him. The church filed a motion to dismiss, contending that Crymes’ claims were ecclesiastical and, thus, not reviewable by a court. The First Amendment prohibits courts from interfering in church matters that are ecclesiastical, such as disputes over theological issues or over who governs a church.

The trial court found that Crymes’ claims indeed were ecclesiastical and granted the church’s motion to dismiss. When Crymes appealed, the Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and reinstated his lawsuit in its Aug. 10 opinion in Crymes v. Grace Hope Presbyterian Church.

The appeals court distinguished between a claim for unlawful termination and one for unpaid wages. It explained that “the court possesses jurisdiction to adjudicate breach of contract claims for unpaid wages and benefits accruing during a pastor’s employment term but lacks jurisdiction to adjudicate any claims directly related to the termination of a pastor.”

The appeals court elaborated that Crymes was not challenging the termination decision directly but was “merely seeking compensation for unpaid salary and benefits allegedly owed to him for work performed prior to his termination.”

Alton D. Priddy, Crymes’ attorney, said he was pleased with the court’s decision and said it represented a positive development for Kentucky law in this area. He said the church had 30 days from the date of the ruling to decide whether to ask the Kentucky Supreme Court to review the case, or the matter would head back to the trial court.

The attorney for the church did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story.

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