Key point 4-02.02. Ministers are considered "public figures" and as a result they cannot be defamed unless the person making an otherwise defamatory remark did so with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the defamatory remark either had actual knowledge that it was false or made it with a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.
A Louisiana court ruled that a church and members of the church board were guilty of defaming a former pastor. A church's treasurer, board chairman, and three church members visited the church's bank to obtain information on the church's finances because the church was planning on building a new sanctuary. They were advised by the bank that the church had a $50,000 certificate of deposit ("CD"). At a meeting of the church board, the church's pastor was unable to identify the source of the CD and was asked to step down as pastor. He repeatedly informed the church board that he did not steal any money from the church and that the CD did not belong to the church.
The pastor sued the church and members of the church board (the "church defendants"). His lawsuit alleged that church board members defamed him by falsely accusing him of having improperly used funds belonging to the church; accused him of embezzlement of church funds by purchasing the CD with church funds for his own use; and called him a thief and a liar before members of the church. A trial court ruled in favor of the pastor, and awarded him $196,228 for back pay, $120,246 for pastoral annual payment loss, $79,795 for fringe benefit loss, plus costs and interest from the date of judicial demand, and general damages of $150,000. The church defendants appealed.