A Fired Pastor’s Defamation Suit Is Dismissed

Appeals court said the lawsuit was barred due to the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”

Key point 2-04.01. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

A Tennessee appeals court ruled that a dismissed pastor’s defamation lawsuit against his former church was barred by the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”


A church’s board of elders called an emergency meeting to address inappropriate Facebook communications the pastor had with a female member of the congregation.

At this meeting the pastor’s resignation was requested. The pastor refused to tender his resignation, and thereafter he received a termination letter from the church that he refused to honor. As a result, a second termination letter was delivered to him. The pastor continued to defy the elders’ efforts to remove him from his position.

Pastor: church’s action not protected by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine

The pastor sued his church, claiming it defamed him based on the following statements:

  • Communications made by church elders to a sound booth operator at the church, among others, about an improper relationship between the pastor and the sound booth operator.
  • Email and correspondence from the church’s administrative assistant informing the congregation of the pastor’s termination. The church’s elders had authorized sending the email to the church’s email distribution list.

The pastor insisted that any communications concerning his alleged inappropriate relationship with the sound booth operator had no connection to any ecclesiastical action or decision and, therefore, were not protected by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

He also claimed that sending emails to the church’s email distribution list informing the congregation of the pastor’s termination did not trigger the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and therefore he could maintain his defamation lawsuit against the church.

The defamation claim was dismissed by the trial court on the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The pastor appealed this ruling to a state appeals court.

Appeals court: the trial court “was not in error”

The appeals court noted:

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also commonly known as the church autonomy doctrine, precludes civil courts in this country from adjudicating “questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law” or church polity, or the internal governance of religious organizations. . . .

The concern undergirding the ecclesiastical abstention bar is that “[i]f secular courts were to become embroiled in ecclesiastical controversies within a religious body, those courts would be allowed, or required, to substitute their judgment for that of church governing bodies on issues of doctrine, belief, or practice.”

Regarding defamation claims specifically, the court noted that “‘[a] number of courts have held that defamation claims arising out of minister employment or discipline disputes are outside the subject matter jurisdiction of the courts because all matters touching the relationship between pastor and church are of ecclesiastical concern and not subject to court review.’”

The court further noted:

“[T]he protection afforded by the First Amendment to church disciplinary proceedings applies to statements made after the church’s decision if the statements or actions are merely implementation of, still part of, inextricably related to, or a consequence of the decision.” . . . [F]or instance, “[a] church’s communication of the fact and reason for excommunication are protected from judicial inquiry and review . . . is as much within the rights protected by ecclesiastical abstention as is the church’s right to take such actions, even though it may carry some kind of negative implication about the expelled member.”

The court conceded that while “the bar posed by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is no doubt generally weakened with respect to statements made outside church membership, the ultimate issue is still whether the alleged defamations arise from or are inextricably linked to the protected religious decision.”

In rejecting the pastor’s defamation claims, the court concluded:

In the final calculus, “[c]onduct that is inextricably tied to the disciplinary process of a religious organization is subject to the First Amendment’s protection just as the disciplinary decision itself.” . . . Indeed, reviewing all of the asserted defamations in this case, they are, in our view, “too close to the peculiarly religious aspects of the transactions to be segregated and treated separately—as simple civil wrongs. . . . We, therefore, conclude that the trial court’s reliance on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine was not in error. Accordingly, we affirm its summary dismissal of the pastor’s [defamation] claims.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates an important point. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine precludes civil courts from adjudicating challenges by dismissed clergy over the legality of their dismissal, but it also bars the resolution of ancillary claims, such as defamation, breach of contract, and emotional distress, that result from the dismissal. Maize v. Friendship Church, 2020 WL 6130918 (Tenn. App. 2020)

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