Tenure at Risk at Seminaries

Kentucky court rejects suits against Lexington Theological Seminary by two ex-professors, declaring them covered by "ministerial exception" even though they aren't ministers.

July 30, 2012

A Kentucky appeals court said Friday that state courts did not have the right to rule on lawsuits over the dismissal of two tenured professors at the Lexington Theological Seminary because it considered them “ministers.”

The academics in question aren’t ordained ministers and don’t even share the faith of the seminary. Given the breadth of the rulings in the two cases, tenure might not be possible at seminaries in Kentucky, some experts say.

The cases involved two tenured professors, Laurence H. Kant and Jimmy Kirby, who were laid off after the seminary declared a financial emergency in 2009. The judges in the Kirby case handed down a unanimous 3-0 decision, while Kant received a 2-1 ruling. Kant is Jewish; Kirby is a member of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a different denomination from the seminary, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ.

A lower court refused to hear the two separate lawsuits, which claimed denial of tenure rights, and on Friday, the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed with the decision. Kirby, who is black, also claimed racial discrimination as a reason for his dismissal from the seminary, but the court’s rulings were limited to deciding whether the state courts have jurisdiction over the cases.

That issue of jurisdiction boiled down to the interpretation of two legal terms – ecclesiastical abstention and ministerial exception – that underpin the tradition of U.S. courts not ruling on issues related to the organization of churches and religious groups and their hiring practices.

In the rulings, the judges cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year involving a Michigan teacher who was fired from a church-affiliated school and challenged the dismissal. The Supreme Court found that there was a “ministerial exception” in the case and federal employment discrimination laws thus did not apply.

Amos N. Jones, a lawyer for Kirby, said he would appeal the Kentucky court’s decision. “This is a state of emergency. Seminary tenure is being invalidated in a sweeping way," Jones said. “We take issue with the court's characterization of ecclesiastical. The issue here is a seminary’s breach of tenure contract.”

Jones said the court’s decision means that any “tenure contract at seminaries in Kentucky are not worth the paper they are written on.”

Charisse Gillett, president of the Lexington Theological Seminary, declined to comment. Richard Griffith, an attorney who represented the seminary in both cases, did not return calls or respond to e-mails.

“At issue, Kentucky courts have long recognized the prohibition from courts becoming entangled in ecclesiastical controversies involving internal affairs that require the court to delve into matters of ecclesiastical policy based on the First Amendment,” said the unanimous ruling in the Kirby case.

Kirby, who taught religious courses at the seminary for about 15 years, was a minister “for the purposes of the First Amendment,” the ruling said.

“…It does not matter that Kant has fashioned his case around a contract cause of action; this does not trump constitutional protections and freedoms of the church,” said a judge in the case involving Laurence H. Kant, the other laid-off professor who filed suit.

The dissenting judge in Kant’s case said that since the seminary dismissed Kant for economic reasons, the ruling did not require an interpretation of church-based law and the doctrine of “ecclesiastical abstention” was not relevant. The dissent questioned whether Kant, who is Jewish, was “teaching religion” or “teaching about religion." Court documents show that Kant taught the Old Testament and also current religious issues such as “Jesus in Film.”

“…[M]ost of my courses touch in some way Jewish studies and cultural studies,” Kant said in his tenure application in 2006.

"Moreover, I cannot discount Kant’s personal religious beliefs as it appears the majority does,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, it appears that, because of this seminal difference, Kant, as a practicing Jew, would not be qualified to be a minister of any Christian faith.”


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