Aug. 14, 2012 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in DeBruin v. St. Patrick Congregation, 2012 WI 94 (July 12, 2012), dismissed a church employee’s complaint that her employment was terminated for an improper reason, because to do otherwise is not permitted under the First Amendment.
Kathleen DeBruin conceded she was a ministerial employee, which refers to a certain type of religious institution employee whose work is fundamentally tied to the institution’s religious mission. As a result, the court found that it was precluded from evaluating why St. Patrick’s Congregation terminated her, as such employment decisions are considered a matter of church governance protected from state interference by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution.
DeBruin was serving as the Director of Faith Formation at St. Patrick, a Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. On July 1, 2009, the parties entered into a written, one-year employment contract, which described DeBruin’s duties, the salary and benefits, and terms of employment. The contract also included a termination provision which stated that, “The PARISH agrees that the DIRECTOR OF FAITH FORMATION shall not be discharged during the term of this contract, without good and sufficient cause, which shall be determined by the PARISH.”
On Oct. 5, 2009, St. Patrick terminated DeBruin’s employment. DeBruin brought suit in the Circuit Court for Walworth County, claiming breach of contract and asserting that St. Patrick terminated her employment “without good and sufficient cause as that term is defined by the Contract of Employment.”
St. Patrick, citing the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Coulee Catholic Schools v. LIRC, 2009 WI 288, moved to dismiss DeBruin’s complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, asserting that both the First Amendment and Article I, Section 18 preclude DeBruin, as a ministerial employee, from obtaining court enforcement of her claims of breach.
The circuit court dismissed DeBruin’s complaint. DeBruin appealed, and the court of appeals certified the matter to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
First Amendment Analysis
In writing the majority opinion, Justice Patience Drake Roggensack noted that the protections of the First Amendment, namely that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” applies to both institutions and individuals. The Fourteenth Amendment comes into play, as it does here, when state action infringes on constitutionally protected rights.
DeBruin was seeking state court enforcement of a provision in a private contract in order to invalidate St. Patrick’s reason for terminating her employment. However, Justice Roggensack noted, “the First Amendment grants religious institutions ‘independence from secular control or manipulation … the power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”
Citing a US Supreme Court case, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976), regarding a religious institution’s termination of one of its ministers, the court here noted that “religious institutions may make arbitrary decisions regarding hiring or firing of ministerial employees and nevertheless be free from civil review for having done so.”
The majority opinion continued, “When a ministerial employee is terminated, the religious institution’s decision about who shall teach its faith and how that shall be done are intertwined with the decision to terminate the employee. Courts can have no role in affirming or overturning such a decision based on the reason why the religious institution terminated the employment.”
In analyzing precedent against DeBruin’s claim, the court found that the First Amendment grants St. Patrick “free choice in deciding that a ministerial employee should be terminated because it is that type of employee who will ‘preach [religious institutions’] beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.’”
In the case of DeBruin, a ministerial employee suing her religious employer to contest the validity of the reason for which she was fired, the court stated, “the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” [Emphasis in original].
As a result, the court did not even reach the issue of DeBruin’s breach of contract claim. Instead, it noted that “the State is effectively enjoined by the First Amendment,” from pursuing the case any further.
The court concluded that permitting the continuation of the breach of contract claim by a ministerial employee would impermissibly interfere in a religious institution’s choice of ministerial employee in violation of the First Amendment and Article I, Section 18. The court affirmed the decision of the circuit court and St. Patrick’s motion to dismiss was granted.
Concurrences and Dissent
The court was clearly divided on this case. Three justices joined in the majority opinion, two issued separate concurrences based on different theories and two dissented. As Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing the dissent opinion noted, “There is no majority opinion of this court.”
In both of the concurrences of Justice N. Patrick Crooks and Justice David T. Prosser, the issue of the constitutionality of the court’s review was not reached, as both found that the analysis of the case should begin first with the terms of the contract. On that basis, both found that the case should be dismissed.
Justice Crooks determined that the termination clause in DeBruin’s employment contract with St. Patrick’s, which stated that the employee “shall not be discharged during the term … without good and sufficient cause, which shall be determined by the [employer],” was an illusory promise – “words in promissory form that promise nothing.”
As a result, Justice Crooks noted, “I would affirm the circuit court’s dismissal of the complaint, but on the grounds that the purported contract is based on an illusory promise which cannot serve as consideration for a contract, and therefore no enforceable contract exists.”
Justice Prosser, in his concurrence, agreed with much of what Justice Crooks wrote, but rather than finding that “no contract exists” because of the illusory promise, he determined that St. Patrick’s perspective was that it did not breach the contract, but rather exercised its rights under the contract to terminate. Essentially, the wording of the termination provision was such that the DeBruin was employed at-will and could therefore be terminated at-will.
The dissenting opinion notes first that “there is no majority opinion of this court,” as no opinion has garnered the vote of at least four justices, and as a result, nothing set forth in any of the opinions has any precedential value.
Justice Bradley, who was joined in the dissent by Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, concluded that it “would be premature to determine whether [DeBruin’s] claims would foster an excessive state entanglement with religion,” and therefore the case should be remanded to circuit court for further proceedings.
The dissent further noted that none of the cases the majority relies on for their findings involved a contract claim brought by a ministerial employee. “To the contrary, all three cases either imply or state outright that their reasoning, which is applicable to claims made under anti-discrimination statutes, does not necessarily extend to claims for breach of contract.”
Justice Bradley also expressed concern that the holding of the court, when taken broadly, would “unquestionably harm those who enter into contracts with the church. I conclude that it would likewise harm the church itself.”
Finally, the dissent concluded, “In sum, I would deny the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. At this stage it is premature to determine whether the claims foster excessive entanglement with religion.”
Deborah Spanic is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.