An Indiana court concluded that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a claim by a dismissed pastoral associate that she had been defamed by church officials.

Church Law and Tax2000-05-01



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.

An Indiana court concluded that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a claim by a dismissed pastoral associate that she had been defamed by church officials. In 1987 a woman (“Linda”) was hired by a church as a pastoral associate and signed an employment contract for a three-year term. In 1990 Linda allegedly executed a second three-year contract with the church that was to run through 1993. In 1992 the church employed a new pastor who met with Linda and gave her the choice of either resigning or being fired. Linda chose to be fired. She claimed that the pastor told her that the reason she was being fired was “that she intimidated him, that they could not get along, and that he did not like working with her.” The church insisted that Linda had been fired for her “expression of unorthodox theological views and conduct offensive to church teachings.”

Linda sued her church for defamation, claiming that the pastor had “unlawfully, untruthfully, and intentionally made misleading and slanderous remarks” about her and had “implied that there was something of a bad and sinister nature” about her, “thereby causing her irreparable harm, injury, and damages and rendering her sick, stressed, and physically debilitated.” Specifically, Linda alleged that after she was fired the pastor stated that she “cannot be trusted with seven-year-old children”; that the reasons for her termination were “personal and confidential”; and that she was “incapable of Christian ministry” and had a “vindictive heart.” She claimed that an official of the diocese further commented, to a newspaper reporter, that Linda did not have a “leg to stand on.” When asked about the specific nature of Linda’s case, the official replied, “What else can I tell you without going into the bad parts? In strict justice, I don’t think we have to pay her a penny.” Linda insisted that the first amendment does not allow church officials to “maliciously set out to destroy a person’s reputation,” while the pastor and diocese claimed that the civil courts are prohibited from delving into the reasons for Linda’s termination because it was “an ecclesiastical concern” that could not be resolved without reference to church teachings and governance. The pastor and diocese also asserted that their allegedly defamatory statements were protected by a “qualified privilege” because they pertained to a matter of “common interest” among church members.

The court agreed with the pastor and diocese, and dismissed Linda’s defamation claim. It concluded:

[W]hen officials of a religious organization state their reasons for terminating a pastoral employee in ostensibly ecclesiastical terms, the first amendment effectively prohibits civil tribunals from reviewing these reasons to determine whether the statements are either defamatory or capable of a religious interpretation related to the employee’s performance of her duties. [Linda] characterizes defendants’ reasons for terminating her employment and their explanations for their subsequent statements as [after the fact] rationalizations, calculated to grant them sanctuary from civil inquiry into the allegedly harmful effects of their words and actions. Regardless of the validity of this assertion, the first amendment prevents this court from scrutinizing the possible interpretations of defendants’ statements and their purported reasons for uttering them; to conclude otherwise would effectively thrust this court into the forbidden role of arbiter of a strictly ecclesiastical dispute over the suitability of a pastoral employee to perform her designated responsibilities.

Application. This case demonstrates the difficulty faced by ministers (and church employees performing ministerial functions) in pursuing legal remedies on account of their dismissal. According to this court, this rule extends to defamation claims as well. Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, Inc., 714 N.E.2d 253 (Ind. App. 1999).

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