Court Upholds Pennsylvania Church’s Right to Fire Pastor After Expenditures Doubled and Attendance Declined

Members of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Larimer hug each other during a recent worship service.
Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

A federal appeals court upheld a historic Pennsylvania church’s right to fire a former pastor who had sued the congregation for $2.6 million in damages.

Arguing that courts would be interfering with freedom of religion if they were to determine if he was justly fired “for cause,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the decision of the Sixth Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s 2015 decision to fire the Rev. William David Lee, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The church said the pastor’s firing was due to alleged “failures in financial stewardship,” “failures in spiritual stewardship,” and “failure to respond to church leaders.” The congregations also noted that expenditures at the church doubled under Lee’s leadership even though the church experienced a 39 percent decline in tithes and offerings, a 61 percent decrease in registered members, and a 32 percent decline in Sunday attendance, as well as declines in community outreach.

The court dismissed the pastor’s case against the church because it would be a violation of the First Amendment to rule on whether a pastor did his job well.

“While the amount of church contributions and members is a matter of arithmetic, assessing Lee’s role, if any, in causing decreased giving and reduced membership in the church requires a determination of what constitutes adequate spiritual leadership and how that translates into donations and attendance,” Judge Patty Shwartz wrote on behalf of the panel.

Those are “questions that would impermissibly entangle the court in religious governance and doctrine prohibited by the Establishment Clause.”

The church hired Lee in 2012 and approved, at his insistence, a 20-year contract early in his tenure as senior pastor, according to court documents cited by Trib Live. Lee’s lawsuit was previously rejected by a federal trial court, citing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: Christian Post, Leonardo Blair