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J.M. v. Minnesota Dist. Council of the Assemblies of God

March 25, 2003

J.M., RESPONDENT,
v.
MINNESOTA DISTRICT COUNCIL OF THE ASSEMBLIES OF GOD, APPELLANT, (C4-02-1533), RESPONDENT (CX-02-1584), ST. JAMES ASSEMBLY OF GOD CHURCH, RESPONDENT (C4-02-1533), APPELLANT (CX-02-1584), JERALD DVORSCAK, DEFENDANT.



Watonwan County District Court File No. C400477

Considered and decided by Lansing , Presiding Judge, Klaphake , Judge, and Stoneburner , Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

A district court is precluded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim against a religious institution for hiring a pastor.

A district court has subject-matter jurisdiction to determine whether a religious entity is the employer of a pastor and may examine governance documents of the religious entity for the purpose of applying neutral principles of employment law.

A district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over non-hiring related claims under Minn. Stat. § 148A.03 against the employer of a pastor.

A district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim of negligent retention against the employer of a pastor who sexually exploits a person to whom the pastor is providing counseling.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stoneburner, Judge

Affirmed in part and reversed in part

OPINION

Appellants St. James Assembly of God Church and the Minnesota District Council of the Assemblies of God challenge denial of their motions for summary judgment, contending that the religious freedom clauses of the federal and state constitutions deprive the district court of subject-matter jurisdiction over claims asserted by respondent J.M. for the hiring and retention of a pastor who engaged in a sexual relationship with her during counseling. Because court examination of the council's and the church's hiring decisions are precluded by the First Amendment, we reverse in part and affirm in part.

FACTS

Based on his degree from a church-owned Bible college, references, and a test to determine that his doctrinal position was consistent with the doctrinal position of the Assemblies of God Church, Jerald Dvorscak was licensed to be a pastor by appellant Minnesota District Council of the Assemblies of God (the council). Dvorscak's first employment was as an associate pastor in Ohio. During Dvorscak's employment there, a young woman complained to the senior pastor that Dvorscak had inappropriately touched her. The senior pastor advised Dvorscak to have no further contact with the woman. No other church officials were involved and no further action was taken.

Dvorscak later began looking for a position as a senior pastor. The council recommended Dvorscak as a candidate for senior pastor to fill an opening with one of its affiliates, appellant St. James Assembly of God Church (the church). Dvorscak went through the church's selection process and was hired by the church as senior pastor. The church did not make any inquiries of Dvorscak's former employer.

Respondent J.M. and her family joined the church about two years after Dvorscak was hired. When J.M.'s husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, J.M. became more actively involved in the church and J.M. states that she sought counseling from Dvorscak. J.M. and Dvorscak began to spend large amounts of time together and became involved in a clandestine sexual relationship. A member of the church's Board of Deacons spoke with Dvorscak once about the poor impression created by his attention to J.M.

About one month later, J.M. revealed the nature of her relationship with Dvorscak to a visiting pastor, who disclosed the relationship to board members. A board member contacted the council. Dvorscak was confronted and admitted the relationship. The church requested and received his resignation, and the council revoked his credentials.

J.M. sued Dvorscak, the church, and the council in an eleven-count complaint. J.M. settled her claims against Dvorscak. J.M. dismissed some of her claims against the council and the church. After various pre-trial motions, the only claims remaining against the church were negligent hiring, negligent retention, and employer liability under Minn. Stat. ch. 148A, and the only claims remaining against the council were negligent hiring and liability under Minn. Stat. ch. 148A. The church and the council moved for summary judgment on these remaining claims, asserting that the district court is barred from considering these claims by constitutional protections provided by the United States and Minnesota constitutions. The district court denied summary judgment.*fn1 The church's and the council's separate appeals have been consolidated.

ISSUES

1. Does the district court have subject-matter jurisdiction over claims against appellant church entities related to the hiring of a pastor?

2. Does the district court have subject-matter jurisdiction over claims against appellants under Minn. Stat. ยง 148A.03 that are ...


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