SC: Church has authority to fire ministers

The Supreme Court once again invoked the constitutionally protected policy of non-interference by the State in purely ecclesiastical matters when it upheld the prerogative of the Pasay City Alliance Church (PCAC) to withhold the extension of engagement of Fe P. Benito, a licensed Christian Minister, as PCAC’s Head of Pastoral Care and Membership.

The Court ruled that the National Labor Relations Commission had no jurisdiction to hear the case rationalizing that “the termination of a religious minister’s engagement at a local church due to administrative lapses, when it relates to the perceived effectivity of a minister as a charismatic leader of a congregation, is a prerogative best left to the church affected by such choice. If a religious association enacts guidelines that reserve the right to transfer or reassign its licensed ministers according to what it deems best for a particular congregation, ministry or undertaking in pursuit of its mission, then the State cannot validly interfere.”

Benito filed a complaint for illegal dismissal, damages, and attorney’s fees before the Labor Arbiter when PCAC decided on the non-extension of her engagement as head of Pastoral Care and Membership.  She claimed that she had attained regular status by operation of law and thus, entitled to security of tenure in view of her service to the PCAC since 2005 when she was appointed Head of Membership and Evangelism Ministry. Benito pointed out that PCAC “hired” her, provided her with a monthly wage, decided which ministry she should be assigned to, issues directives on her behavior, and in fact even contributed to her SSS, Pag-ibig, and Philhealth accounts.

For its part, the PCAC questioned the jurisdiction of the labor tribunal contending that the determination of fitness to be one of the congregation’s ministers is an ecclesiastical affair over which our labor tribunals have no jurisdiction.  PCAC argued that Benito’s insistence on her supposed right to security of tenure undermines their church’s guidelines in continuously assigning their licensed ministers from one local church or ministry to another.  It added that the non-renewal or non-extension of Benito’s terms is not even identical or tantamount to illegal dismissal as she was not even dismissed as a minister, but she simply refused to participate in the process of her transfer.

PCAC is one of the local churches of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Churches of the Philippines (CAMACOP), a religious society registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and maintains a policy which requires pastors and minsters without written contracts to tender a courtesy resignation every year.  The policy is expressed in Article VII, Section 3(2) of CAMACOP’s Amended Local Church Administrative and Ministry Guidelines.

“As a licensed minister of CAMACOP, Benito was aware of its policy requiring annual courtesy resignations that give its local churches a free hand in assigning, reassigning or transferring pastors and ministers, subject to reasonable guidelines and supervision.  We cannot interfere with the implementation of the policy, much less subject a religious congregation to a minister in whom it appears to have lost confidence,” the Court concluded. (Supreme Court (March 3, 2020). SC Reiterates Separation of Powers Doctrine in Minister’s Employment Row., citing G.R. NO. 226908, Pasay City Alliance Church/CAMACOP/Rev. William Cargo vs. Fe Benito, November 28, 2019. Full text of the decision: