Church-hired Counsel Cites First Amendment Cover for La Sierra University Terminations

Earlier this week the legal counsel for Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders of the North American Division, the Pacific Union Conference, and La Sierra University issued demurrers challenging the sufficiency of the claims made by the three La Sierra University employees, Drs. Kaatz, Beach, and Bradley. These will be heard in The Superior Court of California, County of Riverside, on October 20.

The demurrers generally argue that the dispute over the leadership role resignations of the La Sierra University three (LSU—3) is an intra-church matter and the questions of board process, privacy/eavesdropping, and employment policy all resolve in light of the First Amendment. Counsel states that the LSU—3, "asks this court to engage in a full-scale assault on the First Amendment for protections of religion and expressive association rights. The Constitution prohibits courts from such entanglements in the internal affairs of churches." The demurrer continues its argument by tightening the theological link between the educational institution and denominational administrators. In the documents, it chooses to call La Sierra University a "ministry" of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and re-centers the questions from employee rights to church/state issues.

In an extended section they ask a series of questions about the power of the church to control employee behavior.

Does the First Amendment give the leaders of a church the right to speak with each other about whether people are qualified to hold leadership positions in a religious university that church founded and operates as part of its education ministry? 

 

If so, does the First Amendment also give those church leaders the right, without being subjected to tort liability, to ask people to resign from leadership positions in that university after the church learns those university leaders: 

 

A) are "very critical" of that church's highest officials and that church's efforts to accomplish the church's religious mission, and

 

B) have violated a fundamental belief of the church by drinking alcoholic beverages while at a gathering criticizing the church's leaders?

 

. . .Defendants Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists ("PUC") and North American Division Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists ("NAD") submit that the United States Constitution and the California Constitutions dictate that the answer to each of these question is an emphatic "Yes!"  

In a September 14 press release, Richard McCune, counsel for the LSU-3, states that, "Basically La Sierra University contends that its faculty and staff cannot depend on the protection of procedural and due process safeguards or California law." McCune notes that the logic of the denomination's position implies "that any action taken by the Board of Trustees and the administration is spiritual and religious in nature, and thus protected against government interference by the First Amendment." He adds that this theological move to skirt employment and privacy law is reflected in the move to have only one law firm (and a non-Adventist attorney) defend both church administrators and the academic institution of La Sierra University. 

It will be interesting to see if the arguments on October 20 lead to intensified debate about the current intermingling of church power and academic freedom. This move to tighten the legal and theological link between the clerical and the academic vis-a-vis State law will undoubtedly raise some serious questions about La Sierra University's intellectual freedom and could jeopardize its basis for university accreditation. Calling these arguments "contrary to California law" as well as "arrogant and misguided" McCune writes, "it is a radical position that is destructive to La Sierra University and the dedicated faculty and staff that have devoted their lives to providing Christian education to young people." 

Read all the documents here

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Sat, 09/13/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Terrie Dopp Aamodt, PhD

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