Cases & Deals

Amici-professors' arguments adopted in Third Circuit decision in First Amendment case

Client(s) Laycock, Douglas; McConnell, Michael W.; Berg, Thomas C.; Esbeck, Carl H.; Garnett, Richard W.; Cochran, Jr., Robert F.

Jones Day submitted an amicus brief in support of the defendant-appellee on behalf of a group of law professors in an appeal concerning the application of the First Amendment “ministerial exception” to an employment contract dispute between the historic First Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pittsburgh and the church’s former pastor. The court based its decision on non-entanglement grounds and the right of a church to select its leaders. This was the first decision in the Third Circuit to apply the “ministerial exception” since the Supreme Court explicitly recognized the doctrine in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012). It was also the first decision in any circuit court to apply Hosanna-Tabor in a contract dispute.

This amicus brief provided the court with a historical perspective of the “ministerial exception,” including the importance of avoiding entanglement with internal church affairs and of the autonomy of a religious organization, such as a church, over its authority, internal affairs, and doctrine. The brief further explained how the doctrine, which arose in the context of statutory employment discrimination claims, also applies to contractual employment disputes between religious organizations and their leaders. The court’s opinion cited and quoted the Second Circuit’s decision in Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, 863 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017), which in turn relied extensively on the amicus brief that Jones Day submitted in that case on behalf of several of the same professors.

The professors, who are among the foremost scholars of the Religious Clauses of the First Amendment, include Douglas Laycock of University of Virginia School of Law, Michael W. McConnell of Stanford Law School, Thomas C. Berg of St. Thomas School of Law, Carl H. Esbeck of University of Missouri School of Law, Richard W. Garnett of Notre Dame Law School, and Robert F. Cochran, Jr., of Pepperdine University School of Law. Each holds a named endowed chair at their respective universities.

William Lee v. Sixth Mt. Zion Baptist Church, et al., No. 17-03086 (3d Cir.)