Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Defamation Claims Against Church Members
Court rules that it may resolve lawsuit.
Key point. Statements made in the course of church disciplinary proceedings may be protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with malice. In this context, malice means either actual knowledge that the statements are false or a reckless disregard as their truth or falsity.
Key point. Some courts are willing to resolve defamation claims brought by church members against other members, if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or practice.
A Georgia court ruled that it had the authority to resolve a lawsuit brought by church members claiming that they had been defamed by other church members, since it could do so without inquiring into religious doctrine. A church and several of its members were sued by other members who claimed that they had been defamed by several statements made about them. The lawsuit alleged that in the course of a New Year's Eve church service, certain members intentionally and maliciously announced to the congregation that each of the plaintiffs "was a witch and had practiced evil deeds upon family and fellow church members," and that these statements were later repeated to a wider audience at another church service. The "evil deeds" allegedly practiced by the plaintiffs included practicing witchcraft, acts of bodily harm, thievery, causing infertility, stealing United States government files to harm a fellow member, and child abuse. The church and the individual members who were sued failed to respond to the lawsuit, and a default judgment was rendered against them in the amount of $500,000 for each plaintiff. The case was appealed. A state appeals court rejected the church's argument that the dispute involved an internal church matter that could not be resolved by the civil courts. The court observed:

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Posted: May 1, 1997
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