Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, 2012 Ky. App. LEXIS 124 (Ky. Ct. App. 2012), appeal docketed, No. 2012-SC-000502 (Ky. Aug. 24, 2012).

Dr. Laurence Kant is the plaintiff-movant in this matter.  Dr. Kant, who is of the Jewish faith, was an Associate Professor of the History of Religion at the Lexington Theological Seminary (LTS).  LTS is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, a denomination of the Christian faith, and does not provide classes with a secular purpose.  Teaching at LTS in various capacities since 2000, LTS granted Dr. Kant tenure in March 2006.  However, LTS terminated Dr. Kant’s contract at the end of the spring 2009 semester, citing financial exigency as the impetus for its decision.

Following his termination in 2009, Dr. Kant filed a complaint against LTS, “alleging that LTS had breached his contractual right to tenured employment and breached the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing.”  Dr. Kant’s complaint sought both compensatory and punitive damages from LTS.  Following a hearing on LTS’ motion to dismiss the case as an “ecclesiastical matter,” the district court sustained LTS’ motion and concluded that Dr. Kant was a “ministerial employee” due to the subject matter of his course load.  Concluding that the ministerial exception thus applied in the case, and “that the issues in the case also involved an ecclesiastical matter,” the district court ruled that it lacked the requisite subject matter jurisdiction over the controversy.

Dr. Kant appealed the district court’s decision to the Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Appeals, arguing that both the “ecclesiastical matters rule” and the “ministerial exception” do not apply to this controversy.  Ultimately, the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling that it had no subject matter jurisdiction in this case.  First, the court of appeals found that LTS’ “decision making as to who will teach its students . . . would be an inquiry into an ecclesiastical matter” and that such inquiries are prohibited—except for in rare circumstances—under the so-called ecclesiastical matters rule.  Second, the court of appeals agreed that the ministerial exception barred Dr. Kant’s claims because his “primary duties involved teaching religious-themed courses at a seminary . . . that prepared students for Christian ministry.”  Relying heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012), the court of appeals found that Dr. Kant’s proffered cause of action (based in contract law principles) did “not trump constitutional protections and freedoms of the church.”

Dr. Kant then petitioned to the Kentucky Supreme Court for a discretionary review of the Court of Appeals decision. On or about February 18, 2013, the Supreme Court granted Dr. Kant’s petition for discretionary review of the Court of Appeals determination.  The AAUP filed an amicus brief on behalf of Dr. Kant in April 2013.  The brief argued that the school was bound by the contract that it had voluntarily entered into.  Further, the issue at the heart of the case -- whether LTS was permitted to eliminate tenure and terminate Dr. Kant due to a financial exigency -- is a narrowly tailored, non-religious question that will not require the Court of Appeals to intrude on or analyze matters of church doctrine or governance.  

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