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McKelvey v. Pierce

July 10, 2002

CHRISTOPHER J. MCKELVEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
REV. WILLIAM C. PIERCE, INDIVIDUALLY; REV. JOHN T. FREY, INDIVIDUALLY; REV. WILLIAM P. BRENNAN, INDIVIDUALLY; REV. ANTHONY J. MANUPPELLA, INDIVIDUALLY; ESTATE OF REV. MSGR. WILLIAM J. BUCHLER, INDIVIDUALLY; AND DIOCESE OF CAMDEN, A RELIGIOUS CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND JOHN DOES 1-10 (A FICTITIOUS NAME FOR PERSONS AND/OR ENTITIES WHOSE IDENTITY OR CULPABILITY IS NOT PRESENTLY KNOWN), DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 342 N.J. Super. 399 (2001).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

This appeal considers whether the adjudication of various contract and tort claims by a former Roman Catholic seminarian against the Diocese of Camden (Diocese) and individual priests (collectively, defendants) would excessively entangle church and state in violation of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.

In 1985, McKelvey sought information from the Diocese regarding his interest in becoming a priest. The information provided to McKelvey explained that following an application process and acceptance, applicants would be assigned to a place of study in a formation program in a religious seminary and provided a four-year college education. After graduating from college seminary, the seminarian would be assigned to a school of theology for the final four years of academic training, followed by a year of internship prior to ordination. The information provided to McKelvey underscored celibacy as a requirement. McKelvey was accepted as a candidate for priesthood. McKelvey's mother was informed in a letter signed by the Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese that although the cost for college education of Camden seminarians was over $28,000, the student would be responsible for $8,000. The letter did not mention that there would be a repayment obligation if the student withdrew. The letter did advise, however, that all tuition room and board costs at the graduate level were paid for by the Diocese.

McKelvey completed the academic requirements in 1993 and served as an intern. In November 1993, the Diocese granted McKelvey's request for a voluntary leave of absence. When he did not return, the Diocese terminated his candidacy for the priesthood in August 1994. McKelvey was informed that his indebtedness to the Diocese for tuition, books, fees, personal loans and counseling totaled $69,002.57, and that payments should be made to the Diocese. The Diocese has not sued McKelvey or otherwise pursued collection of this sum, however.

In 1999, McKelvey sued the defendants alleging breach of an implied contract by the creation of a hostile education and work environment, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud and deceit. According to McKelvey, various materials related to the Roman Catholic Church and to his seminary training proscribed sexual misconduct, including with an adult McKelvey alleged that he was regularly and persistently subjected to unwanted homosexual advances during his seminary training despite his complaints to supervisors at every level, although he does not claim that any priest or superior ever touched him in an improper way. McKelvey sought damages in the form of reimbursement for his tuition costs and student loans, as well as damages for his emotional suffering, loss of employment, and loss of employability as a priest.

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. The trial court ruled that none of the writings relied on by McKelvey demonstrated a legally enforceable contract and that, in any event, the court could not attempt a purely secular interpretation of those religious documents without violating the First Amendment. The Appellate Division affirmed. 342 N.J. Super. 399 (2001). Although the Appellate Division recognized that McKelvey's suit would not require it to interpret religious dogma, it concluded that entertaining McKelvey's action would require it to delve into religious matters outside its province, including determining whether McKelvey would have otherwise been ordained into the priesthood and the proper measure of compensation, and that adjudicating the implied contract claim would cause the court to encroach on church administration and polity.

HELD: The First Amendment does not immunize every legal claim against a religious institution and its members, and a court faced with these claims must assess every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement to determine whether any of them may be adjudicated consistent with First Amendment principles.

1. The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, forbid laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise of religion means the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires. This clause also provides institutional protection by forbidding governmental action from encroaching on the ability of a church to manage its internal affairs. In contrast, the Establishment Clause prohibits states from promoting religion or becoming too entangled in religious affairs. The test for determining whether a particular government action passes muster under the Establishment Clause requires that it must 1) have a secular purpose; 2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and 3) not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. It is the excessive entanglement prong of the test that is at issue here. (Pp. 10-19).

2. The cognate church autonomy doctrine, which is rooted in both Religion Clauses, protects a church's freedom to regulate its own internal affairs by prohibiting civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity. Although the church autonomy doctrine provides a shield against excessive government incursion on internal church management, it cannot be applied blindly to all disputes involving church conduct or decisions. The threshold inquiry, therefore, is whether the underlying dispute is a secular one, capable of review by a civil court, or an ecclesiastical one about discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law. (Pp. 19-32).

3. Pursuant to First Amendment jurisprudence, before barring a specific cause of action, a court must analyze each element of every claim and determine whether adjudication would require the court to choose between competing religious visions, or cause interference with a church's administration prerogatives, including its core right to select and govern the duties of its ministers. In so doing, a court may interpret provisions of religious documents involving property rights and other nondoctrinal matters as long as the analysis can be done in purely secular terms. The court must next examine the remedies sought by the plaintiff and decide whether enforcement of a judgment would require excessive procedural or substantive interference with church operations. If the answer to either of those inquiries is in the affirmative, then the dispute is truly of a religious nature and the claim is barred from secular court review. If, however, the dispute can be resolved by the application of purely neutral principles of law and without impermissible government intrusion, there is no First Amendment shield to litigation. (Pp. 32-35).

4. Here, the lower courts failed to analyze each and every claim contained in McKelvey's complaint to determine whether adjudication would require a determination of competing religious visions or interfere with church administration or choice. At the heart of McKelvey's case is his contention that defendants subjected him to sexual harassment. Obviously, sexual harassment is not doctrinally based, a protected choice, or inherent in church administration. McKelvey can attempt to prove that he was sexually harassed by defendants and that this conduct constituted a breach of contract and other claims. In proving the existence of a contract, McKelvey may not rely on evidence regarding the vow of celibacy or other church teachings on sexual behavior to establish that his contract bore with it an implied promise that he would be free from sexual harassment. Such an inquiry would require a court to interpret the celibacy vow and related doctrine in contravention of the First Amendment's guarantees. Moreover, even if McKelvey can prove a contract and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, he cannot compel ordination or employment with the church. However, he may seek money damages, for example, for his labor as an intern and relief from the charged costs of his education. (Pp. 35-42).

5. On remand, McKelvey should be given an opportunity to demonstrate how each of his claims can be litigated without offending First Amendment principles. (Pp. 43-44).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the case is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with these principles.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORTIZ and JUSTICES STEIN, COLEMAN, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Long, J.

Argued February 26, 2002

Plaintiff Christopher J. McKelvey, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, has sued the Diocese of Camden and a number of its priests, in contract and tort, claiming that he was regularly and persistently subjected to unwanted homosexual advances during his lengthy seminary training despite his complaints to supervisors at every level. According to McKelvey, he was forced to drop out before ordination due to the homosexual harassment, and is now without a meaningful career. The Superior Court dismissed McKelvey's complaint on the ground that adjudicating it would require intrusion into church polity and administration, excessively entangling church and state in violation of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. U.S. Const. amend. I. The Appellate Division affirmed that judgment.

We now reverse. The First Amendment does not immunize every legal claim against a religious institution and its members. The analysis in each case is fact-sensitive and claim specific, requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement. In our view, the lower courts failed to engage in that kind of painstaking analysis and painted with too broad a brush when dismissing McKelvey's case in its entirety. We thus reverse and remand the case to the trial court to determine, on an issue-by- issue basis, whether any of McKelvey's claims may be adjudicated consistent with First Amendment principles.

I.

The history of this case is detailed in the opinion below, McKelvey v. Pierce, 342 N.J. Super. 399, 403-10 (App. Div. 2001), and is incorporated as if more fully set forth. In brief, in 1999, McKelvey sued the Diocese of Camden (Diocese) and a number of priests (collectively, defendants) alleging breach of an implied contract by the creation of a hostile education and work environment, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud and deceit. He demanded a jury trial. That complaint and an amended version of it were dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. McKelvey filed a second amended complaint, again alleging the same causes of action.

After limited discovery, and without ever filing an answer, defendants moved to dismiss the second amended complaint. The motion by defendants for judgment on the pleadings, R.4:6-2(d), effectively became a motion for summary judgment. R.4:46-2; Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, cmt. 4.1 on R.4:6- 2(3)(2001).

The facts before the trial court, with the benefit of inferences in favor of McKelvey, the non-moving party, see F.G. v. McDonnell, 150 N.J. 550, 556 (1997), are as follows: In January 1985 McKelvey made inquiry of the Diocese regarding his interest in becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He was provided with a brochure entitled "The Diocesan Priesthood," which underscored celibacy as a required element for participation. The brochure also described the application process, including an initial meeting with the Vocation Director of the Diocese; completing an application form; forwarding written recommendations, ecclesiastical records, academic transcripts; undergoing psychological and physical examinations; and engaging in an interview process.

According to the brochure, upon acceptance, the applicant is assigned to a place of study in a formation program in a religious seminary. Included is a four-year college education. Upon graduating from the college seminary, the seminarian is assigned to a school of theology for the final four years of his academic training. The ninth and final year of formation, prior to ordination to the priesthood, is a year of transition from the seminary to the Diocese. At the completion of that year of internship, the candidate petitions the Bishop for ordination.

McKelvey initiated the process. As part of his application, he met with the Director of Vocations of the Diocese and later was interviewed by four priests. On April 16, 1985, the Diocese notified McKelvey of his conditional acceptance as a candidate for the priesthood. In January 1986, Auxiliary Bishop Schad wrote to McKelvey's mother that "at the present time, the actual costs for college education of Camden seminarians is over $28,000," of which the student would be responsible for $8,000. Students were eligible for the federal Guaranteed Student Loan Program. The Bishop's letter assured that "all tuition, room and board costs at the graduate level are paid for by the Diocese of Camden." Nothing was mentioned in Bishop Schad's letter about a repayment obligation, if any, upon withdrawal.

McKelvey attended St. Pius X Seminary until 1989. The seminary was affiliated academically with the University of Scranton, a Jesuit institution from which McKelvey obtained an A.B. degree in 1989. From 1989 to 1993, he attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, a theological seminary and divinity school in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. When not at St. Charles, he was assigned to work as an intern at the Holy Family Church in Grenloch, New Jersey in 1990 and 1992. After graduating from St. Charles in 1993, he interned at Our Lady of Lourdes in Glassboro, New Jersey, and at the Church of the Incarnation in Mantua, New Jersey.

The student handbook in use at the time McKelvey attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary stated that seminarians were expected to refrain from dating (defined as extending an invitation to another person for romantic purposes). A 1993 statement issued by Bishop McHugh of the Camden Diocese (in response to sexual abuse charges made by other persons against the Diocese) stated that the Church vehemently opposes all sexual misconduct, including "sexual misconduct with an adult," especially by clergy and others in Church positions. The Bishop stated there was no tolerance for any type of sexual behavior on the part of priests in the Diocese. According to Church guidelines regarding charges of sexual molestation, which were issued in August 1993, proscribed conduct included "sexual misconduct with an adult, or any public action contrary to Church law or teachings regarding sexual behavior."

According to McKelvey, although the Diocese and its employees made implied representations that his educational program would be free of exposure to extramarital sexual conduct, deviant sexual conduct, and sexual harassment, defendants instead provided an atmosphere in which they and their employees "fostered, tolerated, permitted and encouraged inappropriate sexual conduct which included, but was not limited to, persistent and frequent demands whereby plaintiff was subjected and exposed to unreasonable, unlawful, immoral homosexual and other deviant discussions and/or contact." In particular, McKelvey alleged that while living in one rectory of the Diocese, one defendant repeatedly confronted him in order to discuss his homosexual lifestyle and to importune McKelvey to accompany him to gay bars. That same defendant also attempted to draw McKelvey into discussions of masturbation, homosexuality, and other sexual acts. McKelvey reported that misconduct to the vocation director of the Diocese (who was the supervisor of both McKelvey and the defendant making the overtures). The vocation director failed to take any corrective action.

Another defendant, also McKelvey's supervisor, attempted to engage him in sexually related topics, including homosexual acts. Following that defendant's death, McKelvey was assigned to the supervision of another defendant, who apparently was aware that McKelvey had reported the sexual overtures of his predecessor. According to McKelvey, that defendant acted in an abusive and hostile manner; created a hostile working, residential, and educational environment; and failed to prevent further abusive conduct by other defendants. McKelvey also claims that another defendant, who was assigned to him as a mentor and spiritual director, informed McKelvey that he too was homosexual and ...


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