• Key point 2-04.1. 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.
• 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.
* A Colorado court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment of religious freedom from resolving a pastor’s claims that he was defamed and wrongfully dismissed by his church. A father and son served as a church’s senior pastor and associate pastor. The associate pastor also owned a business that employed three members of the church. These three members were terminated by their employer, and the matter became an issue within the church. After several church meetings, the church terminated the employment of the senior pastor, and the associate pastor resigned. The former pastors sued the church, and members of the church board individually. They alleged, in part, that the church board, in violation of the church’s constitution and its contract of employment with the former senior pastor, arranged a “public meeting” for church members to discuss discomfort with him as their pastor; and that false, slanderous, and libelous statements were made at the meeting that resulted in the senior pastor’s termination. The senior pastor also alleged that the church, and church board members, wrongly refused to pay the former senior pastor’s severance and health care benefits following his termination.
The church and church board did not dispute that the church meeting was held to discuss concerns about the pastor, that the statements were made, that a petition seeking removal of the pastor was signed and submitted to the board, and that the pastor was terminated as a result of the church meeting. However, the church and church board asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit against them on the ground that it was an internal church dispute over which a civil court had no jurisdiction. The trial court agreed, noting that the statements made during the church meeting were made “within the constitutionally protected context of the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom because they were made during a church meeting that concerned the investigation, discipline and discharge of [the senior pastor].”
A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It noted that the Colorado Supreme Court, in a previous decision, ruled that the decision to hire or discharge a minister “is purely ecclesiastical, is inextricable from religious doctrine, and is an expression of the beliefs of the church and the embodiment of the religion.” Van Osdol v. Vogt, 908 P.2d 402 (Colo. 1996). As a result, “the Van Osdol court held that once a court is called on to evaluate a religious organization’s discipline of its clergy, as was raised by the minister’s claims … the First Amendment prohibits further inquiry.”
However, the Van Osdol case also recognized that the First Amendment is not an absolute bar to all claims against a religious institution and that a minister’s claim against a church may be pursued so long as it can be addressed “without resort to ecclesiastical policy.” The appeals court concluded:
Here, however, it is undisputed that the statements at issue were made in the context of a meeting convened by the church and its board for church members to discuss whether [the senior pastor] should be terminated as pastor. Indeed, according to plaintiffs, the senior pastor “was unlawfully and illegally terminated from his contract with defendant church as a result of this meeting.” It does not matter whether the offending statements were secular in nature or that [the associate pastor has already resigned] at the time the statements were made. The statements giving rise to the defamation and other claims related directly to a church process that resulted in the senior pastor’s termination. Accordingly, evaluation of the statements in isolation of this process, with respect to any of plaintiffs’ claims here, is not possible. Whether a statement has a defamatory meaning is predicated on context. Thus, the court here would be required to assess in its entirety a church meeting convened by the church to discuss dissatisfaction with, and the possible discharge of, its pastor.
The church and church defendants claimed that they could not have committed defamation because of the so-called “qualified privilege” defense. Many courts have ruled that statements made in the course of a church disciplinary proceeding are subject to a qualified privilege, meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with malice (meaning that the person knew the statements were false, or made them with a “reckless disregard” of their truth or falsity). The court, however, noted that this defense would require it “to determine whether defendants were acting in good faith or with malice. Resolution of this issue would require assessment, at a minimum, of the motives of the church members who uttered the allegedly defamatory statements. Such a determination could not occur without a subjective evaluation of their choice of spiritual leader.”
The court likewise ruled that it could not resolve the plaintiffs’ claims of emotional distress or interference with business relationships “separate and apart from the church’s termination proceedings,” and so they had to be dismissed.
Finally, the court expressed “serious concerns” that allowing lawsuits over church members’ comments about their church leaders made at church meetings “would inhibit the free and open discourse essential to a religious institution’s selection of its minister. Such a result could chill expressions of dissatisfaction from church members and thereby intrude upon the autonomy of religious institutions to freely evaluate their choice and retention of religious leaders.”
Application. This case is significant for the following reasons:
First, the court stressed that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts not only from resolving wrongful termination disputes brought by ministers against a former church, but also any collateral claims stemming from the termination including defamation, emotional distress, or interference with contract. It did caution, however, that such disputes may be resolved “without resort to ecclesiastical policy,” but concluded that this exception did not apply in this case.
Second, the court ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying the “qualified privilege” defense in the context of church disciplinary proceedings involving the termination of a minister. This is an extraordinary conclusion that has not been reached by any other court. The qualified privilege has been a helpful defense to many churches confronted with a defamation claim. It requires that plaintiffs must prove that a person making an allegedly defamatory comment did so with “malice” to prevail in a defamation claim arising out of statements made in church disciplinary proceedings or in any other context so long as they pertain to matters of “common interest” among church members. The defense is helpful because malice is very difficult to prove. Fortunately, no other court has ruled that the First Amendment prevents this defense from being asserted in the context of church disciplinary meetings involving the termination of a minister.
Third, the court suggested that the First Amendment may bar the civil courts from resolving lawsuits over church members’ comments about their church leaders made at church meetings. Seefried v. Hummel, 2005 WL 1773873 (Colo. App. 2005)
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