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Welter v. Seton Hall University

Decided: June 1, 1992.


On appeal from and on certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 243 N.J. Super. 263 (1990).

Clifford, Wilentz, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, Stein


The opinion of the court was delivered by


Plaintiffs are former nuns who were employed as teachers by defendant Seton Hall University (Seton Hall or the University). The University breached its employment contract when it failed to give plaintiffs terminal-year contracts for the academic year 1983-84. In plaintiffs' action based on that breach, Seton Hall argues that the failure to issue terminal-year contracts "was mandated by Seton Hall's religious beliefs, which, pursuant to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, may not be reviewed by a civil court." The trial court rejected that defense, and plaintiffs prevailed at trial. The Appellate Division reversed, but in doing so held that Seton Hall's free-exercise defense should have been submitted to a jury. Seton Hall appeals that determination and urges this Court to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint and enter judgment for defendants.

We conclude that plaintiffs performed non-ministerial functions for the University (as used in this opinion, and subject to amplification below, see infra at (slip op. at 18), "ministerial" functions are those related to religious doctrine or pastoral activities within an organized religious group), and that the contract governing the dispute does not incorporate Roman Catholic doctrine. We hold that the trial court properly exercised jurisdiction and that judicial resolution of the dispute does not violate the First Amendment. We therefore reverse the Appellate Division judgment and reinstate the Law Division judgment in each plaintiff's favor for $45,000, representing compensatory damages.


Plaintiffs, Marilyn and Carolyn Welter, were nuns of the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart, a recognized pontifical Order of the Roman Catholic Church. Until June 30, 1983, both also held teaching positions with Seton Hall. On that date, the University terminated plaintiffs' employment, purportedly because plaintiffs' superiors in the Ursulines had ordered them to return to the convent in Toledo, Ohio. Seton Hall concedes that it failed to abide by the employment contract's provisions governing termination, and acknowledges that but for the First Amendment issue raised, the contract would control the dispute. Because our Disposition of that constitutional claim turns on the reasons for plaintiffs' termination from employment, we summarize the facts, recounted in greater detail by the Appellate Division, 243 N.J. Super. 263, 265-72 (1990).

The record discloses that plaintiffs entered the Ursuline Order in 1953 and thereafter took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and instruction of youth. They received masters degrees in education from the University of Maine in 1973 and in mathematics from the University of Toledo in 1974. However, neither has completed the dissertation necessary to the award of a Ph.D.

Plaintiffs eventually applied to Seton Hall and other eastern Catholic universities for positions as computer-science instructors. Acting through several of the individual defendants, the University interviewed the Welters and in 1980 offered them both one-year probationary positions as assistant professors in its newly-formed computer-science department. Because the contracts Seton Hall offers to its clerical faculty do not differ from those offered to lay faculty, the contract that plaintiffs signed includes no condition requiring that they obtain the permission of their religious superiors before accepting employment nor any provision relating at all to matters of religion.

The Welters testified that during the employment interview they accurately reported their academic credentials. Several of the individual defendants who conducted that interview, however, insisted that plaintiffs had misrepresented that they were scheduled to receive Ph.D.s in higher education within one year. Those defendants also claimed that during the interview, plaintiffs represented that they had obtained permission from the Ursulines to seek or accept outside employment.

After two semesters at Seton Hall plaintiffs returned for the summer to the Ursuline motherhouse, where their superiors voiced doubts about whether plaintiffs had properly sought the Order's permission to accept the teaching positions. One of plaintiffs' former superiors testified that the Ursulines had then agreed to allow plaintiffs to continue working at the University because plaintiffs had (falsely) represented to her that they had already signed a five-year contract with Seton Hall and further because of the Ursulines' conviction that they should honor what amounted to a request for personnel by another Catholic institution.

Midway through plaintiffs' second year at Seton Hall friction between plaintiffs and the University's faculty members and administrators arose and continued through the end of the academic year. Several faculty members felt that plaintiffs were underqualified in the field of computer sciences. None of the complaints or criticisms by administrators or fellow-faculty members concerned religious, doctrinal, or spiritual matters, or issues of church polity, i.e., issues of internal church governance. Rather, they arose over a proposed masters-degree program in computer science, plaintiffs' academic credentials, and plaintiffs' progress towards their doctorates.

By the first semester of the Welters' third year of employment the administration had decided to place plaintiffs on involuntary sabbatical leave for the following (spring) semester to allow them to pursue their doctoral studies. However, defendant Shannon, an assistant dean, testified that by the spring semester, plaintiffs' presence at the University had become unacceptably "disruptive." Thus, by the beginning of that semester, Shannon had decided to offer plaintiffs terminal, one-year contracts for their fourth and presumably final year at Seton Hall. According to the employment contract, that action along with the submission of written notices of termination would have set the stage for termination of the Welters' temporary appointments at Seton Hall. However, although he prepared them, Dean Shannon never sent written notices of termination or offered plaintiffs terminal-year contracts. Instead, before making public the decision to terminate the Welters, Dean Shannon consulted Brother Benedict LoBalbo, a Marist brother and administrator at Seton Hall, for, in Seton Hall's words, "advice and assistance" in terminating plaintiffs.

Brother Benedict testified that he had advised several of the University's administrators to confer with the Ursulines before offering the terminal-year contracts. His basis for that advice was the unique relationship between the "superior and [the] subject" and the common mission of the Ursuline Order and Seton Hall.

The University therefore authorized LoBalbo to confer with the Ursulines, purportedly based on his assessment that because the Ursulines had unselfishly committed two subjects "for the good of the university," considerations of "religious courtesy" required prior consultation with the Order. LoBalbo testified that he had informed the Ursulines that although Seton Hall preferred that plaintiffs not return for the terminal year, the University would respect the Order's wishes. Contrary to his prediction, the Ursulines did not protest plaintiffs' impending discharge. The record discloses no suggestion that Brother Benedict told the Ursulines that failure to renew plaintiffs' employment contracts without first providing them with terminal-year contracts would violate their employment agreement.

In support of their decision to terminate the Welters' appointments without complying with the contract, defendants rely on Canons 601, 665, 671, and 1375 of the Code of Canon Law. See Canon Law Society of America, Code of Canon Law (3d ed. 1983). Canon 601 requires "submission of [a cleric's] will to legitimate superiors * * *." Id. at 227. Canon 665 section 2 provides that "members unlawfully absent from the religious house with the intention of withdrawing are to be solicitously sought after by [fellow members of the faith] and aided to return and persevere in their vocation." Id. at 253. Canon 671 prohibits clerics from "accepting duties and offices outside the institute without the permission of the legitimate superior." Id. at 255. Finally, Canon 1375 provides that clerics and religious institutions that hinder the exercise of ecclesiastical power shall be punished with a "just penalty." Id. at 497.

Plaintiffs charge that Seton Hall's citation of the foregoing canon represents nothing more than an attempt "to convert this case into one featuring religious doctrine and controversy," whereas in fact the canons "do not serve as the factual basis for this case" and "should not be allowed to become the civil law of this state." Moreover, they contend that Seton Hall concocted a plan "quickly to dispose of the Sisters Welter" by "collaborating" with the Ursulines to ensure their departure from the University and to circumvent the express requirements of the contract.

In support of that argument plaintiffs emphasize a dispute that predated problems between plaintiffs and Seton Hall. Apparently, the Welters and the Ursulines had disagreed regarding the proper procedures by which plaintiffs would contribute income to the Order. The Ursulines urged the University to forward plaintiffs' paychecks directly to the Ohio motherhouse, but Seton Hall advised plaintiffs to set up their own checking account, into which they should deposit their entire paychecks and from which they could draw living expenses. When questioned at oral argument, Seton Hall's attorney characterized his client's disregard of the Ursulines' wishes as an "administrative blunder."

In March 1983 the Ursulines wrote plaintiffs that they did not have the Order's permission to renew their contracts with Seton Hall for the academic year 1983-84. Seton Hall subsequently notified plaintiffs that if the Order refused to grant them permission to remain for that year, the University would terminate their appointments as of June 30, 1983, notwithstanding its failure to have provided the required twelve-month written notice and terminal-year ...

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