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Fired rabbi loses appeal

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A Bloomington rabbi terminated less than a year into his contract with Congregation Beth Shalom lost his case before the Indiana Court of Appeals. He claimed he was fired for reporting child abuse, but the congregation said his contract was terminated for other conduct that fell under the ministerial exception.

Beth Shalom entered into a contract with Steven Ballaban for him to serve as rabbi for three years. He was fired nearly a year later in 2010 due to the board of directors’ view that Ballaban was unable or unwilling to fulfill the expectations for rabbinic behavior, put the tax-exempt status of the congregation at risk, breached the congregation’s guidelines’ sacred duty of confidence on at least two occasions, and was hostile toward employees. Ballaban argued that he was fired because he previously had exchanged email messages with several people regarding concerns of child abuse by a teacher. That abuse claim was later unsubstantiated by the Department of Child Services.

After Ballaban filed a lawsuit following his termination, the congregation argued that the ministerial exception applies. Ballaban claimed reporting child abuse would fall outside of that exception and allow his suit to proceed. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Beth Shalom and other defendants.

Judges Elaine Brown, L. Mark Bailey and Nancy Vaidik each wrote opinions on this case, with Bailey and Vaidik concurring with Brown’s opinion that summary judgment was proper for the defendants.

Brown wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t decided whether the ministerial exception applies when a minister is fired or impacted for reporting or attempting to report child abuse. She found it’s not necessary to decide that yet because the record supports the ruling that the ministerial exception applies.

Bailey noted that the record doesn’t include Ballaban’s complaint or amended complaint, but it appears he brought claims of breach of contract, tortious interference with a contract, negligent failure to supervise, defamation and invasion of privacy. He pointed to a letter to Ballaban designated as evidence by Beth Shalom that reasons for his termination included “conduct unbecoming a spiritual leader,” and that he had been counseled by another rabbi about his behavior. Ballaban never designated materials showing that the termination was prompted solely by the reports of child abuse.

Vaidik wrote that the ministerial exception doesn’t allow a congregation to fire a spiritual leader who refuses to commit a criminal offense and failure to report child abuse is a criminal offense. But the designated evidence doesn’t reveal the reason Ballaban was fired was his child-abuse reporting, so she concurred in result.

All of the judges agreed in Steven A. Ballaban v. Bloomington Jewish Community, Inc., a/k/a Congregation Beth Shalom, Paul Eisenberg, Judith Rose, Sarah Wasserman, Lynne Foster Shifriss, and Roberta "Didi" Kerler, 53A01-1207-CT-315, that Beth Shalom is not entitled to appellate attorney fees.

 

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