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Alicea v. New Brunswick Theological Seminary

Decided: June 1, 1992.


On appeal from and on certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 244 N.J. Super. 119 (1990).

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein join in this opinion.


The opinion of the court was delivered by


On this appeal we apply the principles declared in Welter v. Seton Hall University, N.J.(1992), decided this day, in which we hold that enforcement of an employment contract did not violate the First Amendment because the plaintiffs neither performed ministerial functions for defendant Seton Hall University nor could reasonably have contemplated that compliance with Roman Catholic Canon Law constituted an implied covenant of or condition precedent to the employment contract. In this case, after defendant New Brunswick Theological Seminary (NBTS) refused to confer tenure-track status on plaintiff, the Reverend Benjamin J. Alicea, he brought suit, alleging breach of an employment promise. The Law Division granted NBTS's motion for summary judgment based on the First Amendment, and the Appellate Division affirmed. 244 N.J. Super. 119 (1990). We granted certification, 126 N.J. 320 (1991), and now affirm.


The General Synod governs the Reformed Church of North America (the Church), which the Appellate Division characterized as a "hierarchical ecclesiastical body." 244 N.J. Super. at 122. The General Synod enjoys "an original authority over all the seminaries * * *, the appointment and installation of their professors, and the regulation of the courses of instruction" formally affiliated with the Church. Ibid. The Church's Board of Theological Education (BTE) supervises the Church's seminaries, including NBTS.

Although NBTS seeks "to prepare men and women for educated and faithful leadership in the Church * * * and * * * in specialized ministries," it offers degrees, in conjunction with other institutions, that incorporate non-ecclesiastical disciplines. 244 N.J. Super. at 123. NBTS does not confer secular degrees other than those conferred through that inter-institutional program. Because recent enrollment has increasingly reflected a non-Church-member student body, the seminary has appointed several faculty members and administrators who are ordained as ministers in other Christian religions. However, all non-Church-ordained faculty and administrators must subscribe to the Church's Declaration for Professors of Theology, attest to the Church's doctrinal standards, and submit to the jurisdiction of BTE. As the Appellate Division observed, "NBTS is an institution of the Church and is wholly accountable to it." Ibid.

BTE incorporated NBTS as a non-profit corporation under N.J.S.A. 15A:16-2. The General Synod is the sole shareholder, with BTE exercising supervisory authority over NBTS. To be a member of BTE, one must be either a minister or lay member of the church. All BTE members serve as NBTS trustees, and the president of NBTS serves as member ex officio of BTE. Only BTE may grant full-time faculty appointments for terms exceeding one year, and only BTE may promote administrators and faculty. NBTS's comprehensive faculty-personnel manual provides that after efforts at resolving faculty grievances have failed, the grievant "may * * * appeal[] to [BTE] through its Student and Faculty Concerns Committee." The manual also sets forth, although somewhat ambiguously, the procedure by which faculty members are to be considered for tenure.

Alicea, an ordained minister of the Church who began working for NBTS in 1978, was promoted in 1980 to the position of Director of NBTS's Urban Studies Program, which offers evening theology courses. After the three-year term of plaintiff's appointment as head of that program had expired, the Reverend Howard Hageman, then President of NBTS, offered plaintiff a position as assistant professor. Alicea accepted the one-year appointment to NBTS's faculty. The present litigation centers on the terms and effect of that employment offer.

Alicea characterizes his appointment by Hageman as one component of a larger plan according to which plaintiff agreed to forego a professorship at the San Francisco Theological Seminary and to remain at NBTS. He emphasizes that at the time of his appointment to the faculty, NBTS suffered a shortage of evening-program personnel. As further evidence of NBTS's need for plaintiff's skills during that period, Alicea cites the end of the affiliation between the New York Theological Seminary and NBTS, and the resignation of a faculty member in the same field as plaintiff. Alicea alleges that in exchange for his agreement to remain at NBTS, Hageman assured him that he would be placed on tenure-track status and that he would be granted tenure after completion of his doctoral studies.

Relying on the provision of BTE's bylaws that authorizes the President to make only one-year appointments, NBTS characterizes the promise as one for a "temporary and non-tenure-track" promotion that did not require BTE ratification. Hageman concedes that BTE never reviewed the appointment. Alicea explains NBTS's conspicuous failure to observe formal procedure by alleging that the Church had long since abandoned that review mechanism in favor of ad hoc appointments by the President. Plaintiff contends, in effect, that by implicitly ratifying such informal procedures, NBTS had conferred apparent authority on Hageman to grant plaintiff eventual tenure status. After plaintiff resigned and efforts at settlement stalled, he filed this suit against NBTS and the Reverend Robert A. White (Hageman's successor), claiming that he had been constructively discharged and that he had resigned under duress.

The trial court, declining to exercise jurisdiction over what it perceived to be "a religious, doctrinal dispute," granted NBTS's motion for summary judgment. See 244 N.J. Super. at 127. The court held further that plaintiff's agreement with Hageman was unenforceable because it had not been ratified by BTE, ibid.; because plaintiff had failed to exhaust all administrative remedies available in the Church; and because plaintiff had resigned.

The Appellate Division affirmed, first noting that "this case is devoid of questions relating to spiritual matters or church doctrine * * * even though it arose as a result of a controversy over church practice." 244 N.J. Super. 127-28. After recounting the law of apparent authority and enforceable employment promises, the court balanced the State's "legitimate interest" in adjudicating contract disputes against the "independence from secular control" conferred on religious institutions by the First ...

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