That’s the question that Jimmy Kirby hopes to clarify with his lawsuit against the Lexington Theological Seminary. Kirby lost his job as a tenured professor there in 2009, when he was among a group of faculty members who were subject to layoffs after the seminary declared financial exigency. Kirby, who is black, believes that the seminary’s financial problems were used as a pretext, and that he was actually the victim of racial discrimination. He sued in Kentucky court.
Kirby has not had a chance to present evidence in his case, however, because a Kentucky judge accepted the seminary’s argument that it was exempt from all employment suits under the doctrine of “ecclesiastical abstention.” Kirby is appealing, and his lawyer argues that if the seminary is able to evade the suit, tenure protections will be simply theoretical at the institution and others that may invoke the theory.
“Ecclesiastical abstention” and “ministerial exception” are legal phrases that describe the longstanding position of courts in the United States against deciding matters that relate to the organization of churches or religious groups, or to issues of theology. Under this doctrine, courts almost never would hear a suit by a member of the clergy against his or her denomination or a religious body, for instance. The idea behind the legal theory is that it would be difficult for courts to resolve such matters without passing judgment on what are essentially religious decisions — and that such involvement by the courts would cross the line that separates church and state.
Kentucky Judge imposing Christian law?
March 28, 2011 by spn