Court Rules First Amendment Bars Its Involvement in Defamation Claim Against Couple’s Former Pastor and Church

Case illustrates the reluctance of the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes involving the discipline or dismissal of members.

Key point 6-10.1.
According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church's discipline of a member since the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding the members who are in good standing of a church.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment's guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a defamation claim brought by a married couple against their former pastor and church.

Prior to 2011, a married couple (the "plaintiffs") had been longstanding members of a Lutheran church affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. On August 22, 2011, the plaintiffs received a letter signed by the church's pastors that contained several allegations regarding their conduct over the preceding two years, but focused on complaints that the plaintiffs had been engaged in "slander and gossip" against the leadership and ministry of the congregation. In addition to criticizing the plaintiffs' behavior, the letter advised them that they had "excommunicated themselves" from the church and informed them that their church membership had been terminated.

Subsequent to this letter the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod advised the leadership of the plaintiffs' former church to hold a "special voters' meeting" so that the congregation could vote to affirm or reject the excommunication decision. The plaintiffs and approximately 89 church members attended the special voters' meeting, which was held on September 25, 2011. A pastor addressed the meeting, reading from a set of prepared remarks, and published the August 22 letter to those present at the meeting. According to the plaintiffs, the pastor's remarks and the letter contained several defamatory statements, including:

  • The plaintiffs were actively involved in slander, gossip, and speaking against the pastors and board of elders.
  • Plaintiffs had intentionally attacked, questioned, and discredited the integrity of the pastors and other church leaders.
  • Other people had observed the plaintiffs display anger and disrespect toward the pastor.
  • The plaintiffs had publicly engaged in "sinful behavior" inside and outside the church.
  • The plaintiffs had engaged in behavior unbecoming of a Christian.
  • The plaintiffs had engaged in a "public display of sin."
  • The plaintiffs had refused to meet for the purpose of confession and forgiveness.
  • The plaintiffs had "refused to show respect" toward church leaders.
  • The plaintiffs had led other people into sin.
  • The plaintiffs had engaged in slander and gossip and had refused to stop engaging in slander and gossip.
  • The plaintiffs had refused to follow the commands and teachings of God's word.

Following the pastor's remarks, ballots were distributed and the congregation voted to affirm the pastor's decision to terminate the plaintiffs' membership at the church. Following this meeting, a Missouri-Synod panel held a hearing to reconsider the plaintiffs' excommunication, and it also affirmed the plaintiffs' excommunication.

On August 16, 2013, the plaintiffs sued the pastor and church (the "defendants") claiming that many of the statements made about them were defamatory. The trial court concluded that the First Amendment deprived it of jurisdiction to resolve the defamation claim, and dismissed the plaintiffs' case. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court, and the case was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The court began its analysis by summarizing the leading decisions of the United States Supreme Court:

First, a court cannot overturn the decisions of governing ecclesiastical bodies with respect to purely ecclesiastical concerns, such as internal church governance or church discipline. Second, a court may not entertain cases that require the court to resolve doctrinal conflicts or interpret church doctrine. Finally, a court may decide disputes involving religious organizations, but only if the court is able to resolve the matter by relying exclusively on neutral principles of law, the court does not disturb the ruling of a governing ecclesiastical body with respect to issues of doctrine, and the adjudication does not interfere with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.

The court noted that the plaintiffs had conceded that the majority of the statements detailed in their lawsuit could not serve as the basis for a defamation claim, since "adjudicating the truth or falsity of the statements would require the court to consider and interpret matters of church doctrine." For example, "a court could not decide whether the plaintiffs were engaged in a 'public display of sin' without interpreting the meaning of the word 'sin' as a matter of Lutheran doctrine—a determination that would clearly be unconstitutional."

But the plaintiffs insisted that four of the statements referenced in their lawsuit could be adjudicated without violating the First Amendment: (1) that the plaintiffs "perpetuated falsehoods" about the church and its pastors, (2) that the pastors had received numerous complaints about the plaintiffs' slander and gossip, (3) that the plaintiffs accused one pastor of stealing money from the church, and (4) that the plaintiffs committed "breaches of confidentiality." The plaintiffs argued that a court could use neutral principles of law to determine the truth of these statements and, consequently, adjudicating a claim based on these four statements would not lead to excessive entanglement with religion. The defendants countered that allowing a court to adjudicate a claim based on statements made during a church disciplinary proceeding would unduly entangle the court with religion and severely interfere with the ability of religious organizations to govern their own affairs. To begin with, the defendants pointed out that because the statements were made during the course of a church disciplinary hearing, each statement has some religious meaning and a court could not simply sort so-called "secular" statements from "religious" ones.

The court conceded that this argument had merit:

Many of the statements the plaintiffs identified in their complaint were obviously religious in nature. Although other statements seem more secular in nature, it would certainly be difficult to differentiate between secular and religious statements, especially when the context in which the statements were made was clearly religious. A statement-by-statement analysis would be, at best, a difficult endeavor and, at worst, a court might be forced to interpret doctrine just to determine whether or not a statement had a religious meaning. It is precisely this sort of complicated and messy inquiry that we seek to avoid by prohibiting courts from becoming excessively entangled with religious institutions.

The defendants further asserted that the plaintiffs' claims were nothing more than an attempt to circumvent Supreme Court rulings and obtain judicial review of the decision to excommunicate them. The court responded:

There is no doubt that the First Amendment protects the right of churches and religious organizations to make decisions regarding their membership. To some degree, the plaintiffs' defamation claims are a request to evaluate the accuracy of the facts used to support the church's decision to excommunicate the plaintiffs. Some courts that adopt an absolute position on adjudicating suits arising out of church disciplinary proceedings reason that "the First Amendment's protection of internal religious disciplinary proceedings would be meaningless if a parishioner's accusation that was used to initiate those proceedings could be tested in a civil court." Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese, 773 N.E.2d 929, 937 (2002).

In essence, the defendants argue that immunity from defamation suits based on statements made during church disciplinary proceedings must necessarily be included within a church's First Amendment right to make membership decisions, lest that right ring hollow. The defendants stress that this is particularly true because exposing these proceedings and their participants to civil litigation will lead to a chilling effect. If church disciplinary proceedings are not shielded from the scrutiny of civil courts, there is a very real risk that those who participate will censor themselves in order to avoid liability or the threat of a lawsuit … .

[W]e hold that the First Amendment prohibits holding an individual or organization liable for statements made in the context of a religious disciplinary proceeding when those statements are disseminated only to members of the church congregation or the organization's membership or hierarchy. As a result, the district court properly dismissed the claims brought by the plaintiffs against the church and its pastors.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates the reluctance of the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes involving the discipline or dismissal of members. This reluctance led the court to reject the plaintiffs' claim that they had been defamed by the church and its pastor. Some courts have concluded that defamation claims arising out of statements made in church disciplinary proceedings may be adjudicated by the civil courts if they can do so without interpreting or applying religious doctrine. But given the difficulty of this task, such a position remains a minority view. Pfeil v. Lutheran Church, 877 N.W.2d 528 (Minn. 2016).

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