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.
* A Mississippi court ruled that a church was not guilty of defamation as a result of information shared during a disciplinary hearing that was conducted pursuant to the church’s bylaws. A woman ("Alice") sent a letter to a denominational agency (the "regional church") in which she confessed to an extramarital sexual relationship with her pastor (Pastor Mark). The regional church appointed a committee to explore Alice’s allegations. Finding merit to the charges, the committee recommended that Pastor Mark be tried for "unbecoming conduct with the opposite sex." The regional church appointed a three-member trial board to hear the charges. The trial board conducted a hearing that was attended by Pastor Mark and members of his family, the three members of the trial board, and Alice. During the meeting, Alice’s original letter to the regional church was read. Pastor Mark was found guilty of unbecoming conduct with a member of the opposite sex and his ministerial license was revoked. Pastor Mark appealed, but an appeal board affirmed the trial board’s decision.
A year later Pastor Mark brought a lawsuit against his denomination (the "national church"), and various church officials, claiming that they had defamed him by allowing Alice’s letter to be read at the church hearing as well as to the entire church congregation. He also claimed that church officials defamed him by falsely accusing him of obtaining a beer license for his convenience store; informing clients of his accounting business that he turned his clients in to the IRS in exchange for reward money; and, by informing a bank officer that he was not creditworthy. He also sued Alice and her husband.
A trial court dismissed the case against the national church on the basis of the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" which prevents the civil courts from interfering with internal church matters. On appeal, Pastor Mark argued that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine would not shield the national church from liability for their intentional torts. The court disagreed. It began its opinion by noting that the national church disciplines ministers in accordance with the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17, which provides: "[I]f thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained a brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." The national church insisted that Alice’s letter was read at the church hearing, which was a "Matthew 18 meeting." Pastor Mark claimed that he was defamed by the reading of Alice’s letter at this meeting.
The court observed,
A civil court is forbidden, under the first amendment … from becoming involved in ecclesiastical disputes …. The United States Supreme Court has held that in accordance with the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, "civil courts shall not disturb the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal within a church of hierarchal polity, but must accept such decisions as binding on them." This abstention includes church-related questions of discipline, faith, rule, custom, or law. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The disciplining of a minister is church-related and the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention requires us to abstain from questioning the manner of Pastor Mark’s discipline …. [The national church] requires that a pastor’s misdeeds be handled in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17. It restricted dissemination of the information contained in the letter to those present at the [church hearing] composed of church officials, witnesses, and people whose presence Pastor Mark requested …. The reading of the letter was clearly sanctioned by national church procedure. There has been no proof that the information contained in the letter was disseminated outside the confines of the closed hearing, despite Pastor Mark’s insinuation that the letter was read to his entire congregation.
The court noted that Pastor Mark also accused church officials of falsely accusing him of obtaining a beer license for his convenience store; informing clients of his accounting business that he turned his clients in to the IRS in exchange for reward money; and informing a bank officer that he was not creditworthy. The court concluded, "There could be no ecclesiastical reason for a church to engage in this type of conduct against one of its defrocked ministers. Thus, if Pastor Mark could show the existence of genuine issues of material fact that the church defendants engaged in this conduct, he would be entitled to a trial in a civil court."
Application. This case illustrates an important point. The first amendment protects churches from civil liability for information disclosed in the course of disciplinary proceedings, so long as the disclosure is authorized by the church’s governing documents. If church bylaws authorize the disclosure of evidence to a disciplinary body, then the church cannot be liable for such disclosures. However, if church officials communicate information about a minister or member in a manner not authorized by the church’s governing documents, then the officials (and the church itself) may be liable. The most likely basis of liability would be defamation if church officials disclose false information. If the information that is disclosed is true, then the disclosure may constitute an invasion of privacy. Mallette v. Church of God International, 789 So.2d 120 (Miss. App. 2001).
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