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.
An Oregon court ruled that the First Amendment did not prevent it from resolving a defamation claim brought by a pastor against his former church and denominational officers. A church laid off an associate pastor (the "plaintiff") due to financial difficulties. A denominational officer offered the plaintiff a position as pastor of a church in a nearby small town. The plaintiff was unenthusiastic about this position and explained that he had concerns about the salary, health insurance coverage, and lack of opportunities to supplement his income in such a small town. The denominational officer offered the plaintiff a monthly salary of $1,500; a subsidy of an additional $1,100 per month for plaintiff's first three months (totaling $3,300) to match the salary that the outgoing pastor had received; and health care coverage for up to six months.
The plaintiff eventually accepted the position, but emphasized to denominational officers that he wished to be considered an interim pastor. A denominational officer sent the plaintiff a letter stating that he would send him a check for $3,300 to subsidize his first three months of salary, and that these checks would not have to be repaid. A short time later, the plaintiff, with the knowledge of the church board, withdrew $3,000 from the church's bank account. He discussed the transaction with the board, explaining that the money had been earmarked for him as a gift by a denominational officer. The board accepted that explanation and issued the check in accordance with its normal procedures, including having two individuals (in this instance, plaintiff and a board member) sign the check. The expenditure was further documented in expense reports that were sent to a denominational office. The plaintiff deposited the check into a personal checking account and wrote four checks against that amount to cover health insurance premiums.