Article summary. While the law allows pastors to sue parishioners or employees for defamation, it makes it difficult for them to do so. As "public figures," they must be prepared to tolerate criticism and even false allegations. Only when those allegations are made maliciously can they sue for defamation. A Louisiana court ruled that a pastor could sue a former employee for defaming him by spreading false allegations of sexual misconduct. It concluded that she had acted with malice, and ordered her to pay him $90,000 in damages. The court also rejected the woman's sexual harassment claims under state and federal law.
Imagine the pastor of your church being accused of sexual harassment of an employee. The pastor insists that he is innocent, and is cleared by a denominational board of inquiry. The congregation becomes aware of the allegations, and this results in a drastic decline in attendance and finances. The woman is interviewed by two local television stations, and a newspaper, and makes damaging allegations against the pastor. The pastor is forced to move to another city amidst the turmoil. What options does the pastor have in such a tragic scenario? Can he sue the former employee for defamation? That was the question addressed by a Louisiana state appeals court in a recent decision. This article will review the facts of the case, summarize the court's ruling, and assess the significance of the case to other churches and clergy.