Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Ministerial Exception Prevents Courts from Making Defamation Charges
Pastor accused by church leaders of producing pornography is unable to claim defamation in the courts

Defamation

Key point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
Key point 10-15. The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church's liability for defamation.

A Texas court ruled that the "ministerial exception," which bars civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and pastors, prevented it from resolving an associate pastor's claim that he had been defamed by church leaders who accused him of producing and accessing pornography. A church's associate pastor (the "plaintiff") alleged that church officials sought his resignation because he revealed to them that the church had financial problems. In particular, he claimed that he informed church officials "that the church's financial condition was deteriorating and that they might have to hold a membership meeting of the church to discuss the financial options available." The plaintiff claimed that the lead pastor did not like this financial news because it "reflected on his ability to run the church and it prevented him from making an overseas trip using church funds." According to the plaintiff, the lead pastor "began a campaign to solicit negative comments in the form of letters from various members to be used as a reason to embarrass him into resigning from his position."

The plaintiff asserted that church leaders "falsely accused him of producing and disseminating pornography." The allegedly false accusations were based on an e-mail that the plaintiff sent to the lead pastor in which he attached a proposed announcement to be made during an upcoming church service that depicted a couple lying in bed with the caption "Ignite Your Marriage at [our church]. Mattress not included." The plaintiff insisted that the couple depicted in the image were fully clothed, and therefore the accusation of pornography was false and defamatory.

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