Church Member Sues Pastor for Defamation

Pastor sued for making widespread allegations that a church member was homosexual.

Key point 4-02.1.
Ministers may be liable for making defamatory statements if a civil court can resolve the dispute without any inquiry into church doctrine or polity.

Key point 4-04. Many states recognize "invasion of privacy" as a basis for liability. Invasion of privacy may consist of any one or more of the following: (1) public disclosure of private facts; (2) use of another person's name or likeness; (3) placing someone in a "false light" in the public eye; or (4) intruding upon another's seclusion.

Key point 10-13.1. A few courts have found churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister. In some cases, the church or agency is found to be vicariously liable for the minister's breach of a fiduciary duty, but in others the church or agency is found to have breached a fiduciary duty that it had with the victim.

A Florida court ruled that a church member could sue his pastor for defamation for publicly alleging that he was a homosexual.

A church member (the "plaintiff") and his pastor formed both a business and personal relationship outside the church. Later, the pastor sponsored the plaintiff to obtain a license to minister in the denomination with which the church was affiliated.

As their relationship developed, the plaintiff confided in the pastor that he had been called a homosexual as a teenager by an authority figure. This ultimately led to the plaintiff's installation of a religious internet filtration and accountability system on his personal computer that reports suspect internet usage, or attempted usage, to third parties. The pastor served as the plaintiff's "accountability partner" under the system, and one report prompted the pastor to ask the plaintiff if he was "gay." The plaintiff denied that he was a homosexual. At some point thereafter, the relationship between the two men deteriorated.

The plaintiff alleged that on several occasions the pastor falsely accused him of being a homosexual and asserted that his upcoming marriage was a sham designed to conceal his homosexuality. These allegations were disseminated to members of the church, including the father of the plaintiff's fiancé. Later, the pastor urged the plaintiff to call off his upcoming marriage and move out of state, which he did. After the move, when the plaintiff attempted to transfer his pastor's license from Florida to Michigan, the pastor falsely reported to church officials that he was a homosexual. He also called the plaintiff's new pastor to repeat the same accusation.

The plaintiff sued the pastor for defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, and emotional distress. The trial court dismissed all claims against the pastor on the ground that they were barred by the so-called "church autonomy" doctrine, which generally bars the civil courts from interfering in internal church disputes involving doctrine or polity. The plaintiff appealed.


A state appeals court began its opinion by defining the church autonomy doctrine:

The church autonomy doctrine stems from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which provides, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The doctrine, known also as the "religious autonomy principle," and the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" … gives a special, protected status to religious disputes by shielding them from intervention by the courts. The doctrine prevents courts from resolving internal church disputes that would require adjudication of questions of religious doctrine ….

Two distinct viewpoints have evolved with respect to the doctrine in the context of such claims. Some state and federal courts have taken an expansive view of the protections afforded by the doctrine and refuse to adjudicate most tort claims against religious institutions, finding such claims barred because the conduct giving rise to the claim is inextricably entangled with church polity and administration. Most courts, however, have adopted a narrower view of the doctrine and hold that the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are not violated if the tort claims can be resolved through the application of "neutral principles" of tort law, particularly where there is no allegation that the conduct in question was part of a sincerely held religious belief or practice.

The court noted that the Florida Supreme Court had adopted the "neutral principles" approach, and it concluded that the neutral principles approach did not require a dismissal of the plaintiff's defamation and fiduciary duty claims. It concluded:

His defamation claims were based on a series of statements made by the pastor, who expressly or implicitly inferred that he was a homosexual and asserted that his upcoming marriage was a sham to hide his homosexuality. These statements were made during a meeting in the pastor's office, to which the pastor called the plaintiff and three others; in a sermon two weeks after the meeting; when the plaintiff sought to have his ministerial license transferred from Florida to Michigan; and when the pastor called the plaintiff's pastor in Michigan. The First Amendment does not grant the pastor carte blanche to defame church members and ex-members. If untrue, the statement that a person is a homosexual has long been recognized as potentially defamatory outside the context of any religious doctrine or practice. This claim can be adjudicated without implicating the First Amendment and was improperly dismissed on the basis of the church autonomy doctrine.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

The court also ruled that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty claim:

As to the plaintiff's claim for breach of fiduciary duty—based on allegations that the pastor had a fiduciary duty to him because of the pastor/church member relationship and the internet filtration and accountability program—the First Amendment does not necessarily bar such claims.

Emotional Distress

The court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiff's emotional distress claim, noting that the pastor's conduct over an almost two-year period repeatedly telling various people that the plaintiff was a homosexual and of immoral character, and attempting to terminate his relationship with his fiancé, "while deplorable, did not rise to the level of outrageousness required" to prove emotional distress.

Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy includes public disclosure of private facts about another in a manner that a reasonable person would find outrageous. In rejecting this claim the court observed: "The plaintiff's allegations did not establish enough publicity to make the pastor's conduct actionable for public disclosure of private facts. The publicity given to private facts must be to the public at large or to so many persons that the matter must be regarded as substantially certain to become public knowledge." 91 So.3d 887 (Fla. App. 2012).

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