Court Rejected Church’s Claim that the Guaranty of Religious Freedom Prevents Ministers from Being Sued for Defamatory Statements

A minister of the Worldwide Church of God wrote an article in a church publication

A minister of the Worldwide Church of God wrote an article in a church publication that addressed the Church's newly developed and misunderstood doctrine on divorce and remarriage. The article contained statements that allegedly defamed the former spouse of a prominent Church official.

The court concluded that "our accommodation of the competing interests of our society—one protecting reputation, the other, the free exercise of religion—requires that we hold that in order for a plaintiff to recover damages for defamatory remarks made during the course of a doctrinal explanation by a duly authorized minister, he or she must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defamation was made with `constitutional malice,' that is with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Such a rule, observed the court, "strikes an appropriate balance between our citizens' reputational interests and our society's interest in protecting the right to free exercise of religion."

The court rejected the Church's claim that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom prevents ministers from ever being sued for defamatory statements made in the course of doctrinal explanations. Such suits are constitutionally permissible, concluded the court, but a plaintiff has the difficult burden of proving "malice" by "clear and convincing evidence."

The court's ruling does not address the related issue of liability for allegedly defamatory nondoctrinal articles contained in church or denominational publications. For example, is it defamatory for religious denominations to state in a denominational publication that a particular minister has been disciplined or dismissed? This significant issue has been addressed by other courts . McNair v. Worldwide Church of God, 242 Cal. Rptr. 823 (2d App. Dist. 1987)

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