Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2015
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about application of the general law of contracts to religious entities and religious individuals is how unremarkable that application is in most situations. In most situations, religious entities and individuals are bound to contracts they make in the same fashion as other entities and individuals. Thus, for example, if a religious entity contracts for the services of a general contractor to build a church or for the purchase of goods or a religious individual contracts to purchase goods, the same law applies as would apply in other contract cases. The fact that the entity or individual is religious would not affect the legal analysis of the contract in most of these general contract cases.
Courts also have been willing to enforce basic employment contracts between religious entities and individuals. As long as the court need not interpret a religious issue, the court may apply neutral principles of law, in these situations contract principles, to enforce the contract. Of course, as is the case with the law of employment contracts, specific performance is unlikely to be ordered. This is even more true in cases involving religious entities and clergy or teachers because of the general unwillingness of courts to interfere in core religious questions, such as who should serve as the clergy member of a church or teach religious school there. Thus, even if a contract violation is found, damages are more likely to be awarded in such cases.
As Chapter 11 explains, however, courts will not decide ecclesiastical matters in order to interpret an employment contract. For example, a court will not determine whether a minister has breached his or her moral duties as required by church teachings or whether the minister is religiously fit to serve in that capacity. To the extent that courts may interpret portions of a contract without answering ecclesiastical questions, they generally do so. For example, even if a court will not question whether there were valid religious grounds for termination, it may enforce the terms of a severance provision or notice provision. These issues are discussed further in Chapter 11.