• 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 Georgia court ruled that a pastor could not sue a church officer for defamation. Pastor Ted served as the senior pastor of a church. Gary was the chairman of the church’s “Pastor Parish Relations Committee” (PPRC). According to Gary, his duties included ensuring that the pastor and congregation were working together for the benefit of the church and “advising Pastor Ted of the membership concerns of” the church. Apparently, the members of the PPRC had concerns regarding Pastor Ted’s leadership. Gary, along with four other members of the PPRC, drafted a document outlining their concerns, which they provided to an official of a regional denominational agency. The document accused Pastor Ted of, among other things: (1) refusing to follow denominational rules; (2) failing to visit members who were ill or otherwise unable to attend church; (3) failing to participate in the church’s stewardship campaign; (4) failing to meet or communicate with other church leaders; (5) failing to raise funds for the church; and (6) inappropriate behavior; and (6) showing up just before the start of worship services. Based on this letter and a statement Gary allegedly made to a fellow parishioner regarding Pastor Ted’s improper use of a church-funded cell phone, Pastor Ted sued Gary for libel and slander, claiming that the publication of these “false statements” subjected him to “humiliation, ridicule, contempt, and emotional distress and caused his ministry as pastor to suffer suspicion.” A trial court concluded that it could not resolve the lawsuit without delving into issues of church governance, “which is prohibited by the free exercise [of religion] clause of the United States Constitution.” Pastor Ted appealed.
general rule of non-intervention
The appeals court began its opinion by noting that “civil courts have no jurisdiction to inquire into and to control the acts of the governing authority of a religious organization undertaken with reference to its internal affairs. That is not to say, however, that our courts are prohibited from addressing all disputes that arise in an ecclesiastical context. Rather, our initial inquiry must be whether the controversy relates to the faith, teaching, doctrine, and discipline of the church such as expulsion from membership, internal procedures, quorums, or determination of membership in the church. If so, Georgia courts will not mediate such disputes, which we are forbidden to do by the constitutional safeguard of separation of church and state.”
limited exception for allegations of criminal behavior
Pastor Ted insisted that the courts can address defamation claims against church members who accuse pastors or other members of criminal acts. He referred to a previous case in which a court permitted a pastor to sue a member who accused him of child abuse. However, the court distinguished the previous case in two ways: (1) Gary did not accuse Pastor Ted of criminal behavior; and (2) Gary’s comments were all made in the context of a disciplinary proceeding. The court concluded,
Here, unlike [the prior case], none of Gary’s allegedly slanderous statements accuses Pastor Ted of committing a criminal act. Rather, the statements upon which Pastor Ted predicated his lawsuit involve his alleged failure to: (1) participate in a stewardship campaign; (2) attend church meetings; (3) timely return a camcorder; (4) use funds for church repair; (5) properly use a church-funded cell phone; and (6) timely arrive for church service. In order to address whether these statements constitute slanderous or libelous statements, this court would be required to inquire into church policy regarding such matters as a pastor’s role in participating in stewardship programs, the proper use of church funds, and the proper time for a pastor to arrive at church. In other words, resolution of Pastor Ted’s complaint would require us to do that which we cannot do: delve into church doctrine. Thus, the trial court did not err in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to address Pastor Ted’s complaint.
Pastor Ted claimed that Gary’s statements that he assaulted a member of the church, refused to return a camcorder, and misused a church cell phone can “reasonably be interpreted as charging him with violations of laws of Georgia.” The court disagreed, “We fail to see what, if anything, can be considered an allegation of assault, and Pastor Ted’s lawsuit does nothing to illuminate this claim. As for the camcorder, the lawsuit alleges that Gary said Pastor Ted returned the camcorder. Finally, alleging misuse of a cell phone cannot be construed as alleging commission of a crime.” Where the plain meaning of words “imputes no criminal offense, they cannot have their meaning enlarged by innuendo.”
Application. As this case illustrates, critical statements made about pastors in the course of church disciplinary proceedings generally cannot be defamatory. Some courts recognize a limited exception in the case of accusations of criminal conduct, but, as this court noted, where the plain meaning of words “imputes no criminal offense, they cannot have their meaning enlarged by innuendo.” Horne v. Andrews, 589 S.E.2d 719 (Ga. App. 2003).
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