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Federal Court to Decide if Church Can Fire Its Pastor

After firing their pastor, a Pittsburgh congregation finds themselves in federal court facing a breach of contract suit filed by their former pastor.

After three years under the guidance of the Rev. William David Lee, the historic Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church's expenses were mounting as membership was plummeting. In 2015, the church fired Rev. Lee who then sued them for $2.6 million dollars.

The Christian Post explains: "The church hired Lee in 2012 and approved, at his insistence, a 20-year contract early in his tenure as senior pastor… Lee's lawsuit was previously rejected by a federal trial court."

For their part, the church has retained the services of the Beckett Fund, which issued this press release:

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, a historic church founded in the late 1800s and located in one of the City’s poorest communities, will be in federal appellate court next Thursday, July 12, to defend its right to choose its own religious leaders free from government interference. In Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, the small African American congregation is facing a $2.6 million lawsuit from its former pastor, Rev. David Lee, who was fired after worship attendance plummeted and church expenses doubled under his leadership. A federal trial court previously rejected Rev. Lee’s lawsuit, protecting the church’s right to choose its own leaders under Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case Becket won at the Supreme Court in 2012. Rev. Lee appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appeal will be the first time since Hosanna-Tabor for the Third Circuit to consider the First Amendment right of churches to select their ministers.

Through his lawyer Gregg Zeff, Lee is arguing that his employment contract is a secular matter and doesn't fall under the ministerial exception applied in the Hosanna-Tabor decision. According to Trib Live:

[Gregg] Zeff drew a sharp distinction between doctrinal matters and secular employment matters, which, he said, can be adjudicated by the courts.

“There is no argument being made by (Sixth Mount Zion) that (Lee) gave bad sermons, interpreted religious doctrine inappropriately or presided over religious ceremonies in some inappropriate manner,” Zeff said in his reply brief.

“Rather, this matter involves the question of whether or not the attendance and financial issues plaguing (the church) were the fault of (Lee). These are secular, factual questions that are proper to be presented to a jury,” he said.

Trib Live also reports that "the church’s registered membership dropped by 61 percent, Sunday morning worship attendance declined by 32 percent, and tithes and offerings dropped by 39 percent – all while the church’s expenditures rose nearly 200 percent."

While seemingly a trivial squabble between a small church and its former pastor, this case is important for those who believe in the separation of church and state. If Lee prevails, he will have helped set a dangerous precedent that will hamstring churches wishing to rid themselves of inept, disreputable, and even apostate pastors.