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Former Candidate for Priesthood Sues for Defamation

Many courts are unwilling to resolve this type of claim.

Key point. It is the prevailing view that the civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, particularly if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.

A Maryland court ruled that a former candidate for the priesthood could not sue his diocese or church officials for defamation. The candidate entered seminary and pursued training in preparation for ordination as a priest. Less than a year before he was to be ordained, he was informed by a church official that he was being "released" from the diocese and as a result would never be considered for the priesthood. The candidate sued the archbishop on behalf of the diocese and various church officials, claiming that the decision to "release" him was based on defamatory information shared with the diocese. Specifically, the candidate claimed that a priest provided a reference to church officials in which he asserted that the candidate had engaged in "sexually motivated conduct" with certain staff members in a former parish. The candidate claimed that church officials repeated this information with knowledge that it was false and with an intent to harm his chances for ordination to the priesthood. He sought more than $2 million in damages. A trial court dismissed the case and the candidate appealed.

A Maryland appeals court agreed that the case had to be dismissed. It quoted from a landmark United States Supreme Court ruling in 1976:

In short [the Constitution] permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. When this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 46 U.S. 696 (1976).

The court acknowledged that the Supreme Court has not addressed a case involving a defamation claim by a minister or former minister. However, it insisted that "the withdrawal of ecclesiastical controversies from civil jurisdiction has been a broad one." It referred to another Supreme Court decision declaring any dispute concerning "theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members of the church to the standard of morals required of them" to be beyond the authority of the civil courts to resolve. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871). The purpose of such a view is "to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice."

The court was not prepared to say that the civil courts can never resolve disputes between a church and its ministers. However:

When the conduct complained of occurs in the context of, or is germane to, a dispute over the plaintiff's fitness or suitability to enter into or remain a part of the clergy … it is difficult to see how the forbidden inquiry could be avoided. Questions of truth, falsity, malice, and the various privileges that exist often take on a different hue when examined in the light of religious precepts and procedures that generally permeate controversies over who is fit to represent and speak for the church ….
It is apparent from these allegations … that the very heart of the [lawsuit] is a decision by [the candidate's] clerical supervisors to prevent him from becoming a priest. The allegedly defamatory statements were made by them with that intent, thereby evidencing a determination on their part-whether valid and fair or invalid and unfair-that [the candidate] was not a suitable candidate for the priesthood. That the offensive conduct was so directed is what brings this case squarely within the protective ambit of the first amendment.

Application. This case illustrates the reluctance so often expressed by the civil courts to intervene in disputes between churches and ministers. While a minority of courts have been willing to become involved in such disputes if they can do so without delving into religious doctrine, most have been unwilling to do so under any circumstances. All courts agree that they cannot intervene in such disputes if doctrinal issues or the fitness of clergy will be involved. Downs v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 683 A.2d 808 (Md. App. 1996). [Terminat ion, Defamati on, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]

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  • May 1, 1997

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