Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Defamation and Church Clergy
A church's protection from defamation lawsuits.

Key point 4-02.03. A number of defenses are available to one accused of defamation. These include truth, statements made in the course of judicial proceedings, consent, and self-defense. In addition, statements made to church members about a matter of common interest to members are protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements knew that they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This privilege will not apply if the statements are made to nonmembers.

Key point 10-15. The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church's liability for defamation.

* An Oklahoma court ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious liberty, as well as the concept of "qualified privilege," protected a church from being sued for defamation as a result of the senior pastor's statement to a church member that a former youth pastor had been dismissed because he had been "questioning his sexuality." A church board voted to dismiss the church's youth pastor (Pastor Eric). Pastor Eric later sued the senior pastor of the church, and the church and a regional church, for defamation based on the senior pastor's statement to members of the church and local community that Pastor Eric had been dismissed because he was "questioning his sexuality." Pastor Eric claimed that these statements constituted slander, and he asked the court to award him both actual and punitive damages. The church defendants insisted that the pastor's alleged statement was made to only one person (a church member), and concerned the discipline of a youth pastor, and therefore was shielded from liability by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom as well as the "qualified privilege" that protects statements of "common interest" that are shared between church members.

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Posted: January 1, 2007
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