(CN) - A judge had no business interfering with the Baptist church that discharged its pastor after he was accused of sexual contact with a minor, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled.
The Greater Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson placed its pastor, Danny Ray Hollins, on administrative leave in October 2012 when a parishioner accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor.
A civil complaint that the mother of that child filed last year accuses Hollins of luring a 13-year-old to his hotel room and having sex with her during a church convention.
The Hinds County Chancery Court may have already been familiar with Hollis at that point because he had petitioned it a year earlier on the eve of a vote the church had scheduled on whether to retain Hollins as pastor.
Though a chancellor awarded Hollins a temporary restraining order, the Mississippi state Supreme Court noted Monday that he did so "apparently without reading it."
The churchgoers voted anyway and decided to dismiss Hollis, but the chancellor voided the results of the vote and ordered a new election, even though "no evidence was introduced at that time," Monday's ruling states.
"We will conduct a vote, and I will supervise it with proper guidelines," the ruling quotes the chancellor as saying.
Several months of legal wrangling ensued over the chancellor's order for the church to reinstate Hollins as "interim pastor." The chancellor apparently repeatedly advised the parties to hold a new vote so that he could extract himself from this "religious thicket."
The chancellor nevertheless insisted that his intervention in "ecclesiastical matters" was essential "to restore peace to the congregation and to prevent further deterioration of a church congregation," according to the ruling.
Though the chancellor laid out procedures for a new vote, the Mississippi Supreme Court said it stayed the trial court proceedings upon the church's request in December 2013.
It reversed and vacated the lower court's rulings in the matter on Monday, finding it without jurisdiction to hear "a purely ecclesiastical controversy.
After months of legal wrangling, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted the defendants' petition for an interlocutory appeal and ruled that the chancery court should not have gotten involved in the dispute.
"The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment places ministerial church-employment decisions beyond the reach of our courts," Justice Ann Lamar wrote for the court.
"In sum, we find that the chancery judge erred when he treated this ecclesiastical controversy as a secular one - a pastor who is unhappy about being terminated by a church simply does not present a secular controversy," Lamar added.
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