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.
Key point 4-02.3. 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 Massachusetts court ruled that a pastor could sue his denomination for publishing a statement informing other pastors and the media that he had been suspended from all pastoral duties because of "formal charges of sexual misconduct." This case addresses the important question of how much information can be shared about a person who has been accused of misconduct. In 1990, a church member bequeathed $2 million to her church. Unfortunately, the wording of the will was ambiguous, and the member’s church and a denominational agency both claimed to be legally entitled to the estate. While this dispute was pending, a woman ("Linda") wrote a letter to a denominational officer accusing the pastor of a local church ("Pastor James") of having had an adulterous relationship with her from 1970 through 1975. She alleged that she became pregnant as a result of this relationship, and obtained an abortion. A denominational officer summoned Pastor James to his office, presented him with Linda’s letter, and informed him that he was being suspended from any further pastoral duties at the church. Despite his vigorous denial of Linda’s allegations, Pastor James was ordered to remove his personal effects from the church, turn over all funds of the church in his possession, and provide the denomination with an accounting of church funds. A few weeks later the denomination gave written notice to all the ministers in its jurisdiction (alleged to be some 500 persons) that Pastor James had been barred from exercising his priestly functions "due to formal charges of sexual misconduct." The denomination provided the local media with a copy of this notice, and a number of newspaper articles were later published that referred to the charges of "sexual misconduct" against Pastor James.
Pastor James alleged that denominational officials urged the woman to write the letter even though they knew or should have known that her accusations were false, in order to remove him from the church and thereby increase the denomination’s chances of acquiring the assets of the disputed estate. He sued his denomination, alleging several theories of liability including libel and slander. Pastor James noted that this was the first time in the history of the denomination that a disciplinary action involving a minister was not kept "entirely confidential pending a complete investigation and resolution of the complaint."
The denomination asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment which generally prevents the civil courts from delving into ecclesiastical matters. A trial court dismissed some of Pastor James’ claims, but allowed others to proceed. The case was appealed. A state appeals court began its opinion by observing that "the rule regarding the exclusive jurisdiction of hierarchical religious organizations in religious matters is firmly embedded in the first amendments to the United States Constitution." The court quoted from a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court, "The first amendment permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. When this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them." Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). Massachusetts courts decisions "are to the same effect." The "first amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes concerning religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization."
The court acknowledged that the denomination in this case (the Episcopal Church) "is hierarchical in structure." Nevertheless, wrongful conduct "is not necessarily beyond the reach of civil courts merely because such conduct occurs in a religious context." The court referred to a prior Massachusetts case involving the termination of a homosexual church employee. Madsen v. Erwin, 481 N.E.2d 1160 (Mass. App. 1985). In the Madsen case, the court noted that because the employee had been terminated "for being gay … and [was based on the] religious belief [of the church] that homosexuality is a sin for which one must repent," the imposition of liability in such a case "would burden the church’s right to free exercise of religion." However, the court stressed "the equally important rule that the rights of religion are not beyond the reach of the civil law" and that "under the banner of the first amendment provisions on religion, a clergyman may not with impunity defame a person, intentionally inflict serious emotional harm on a parishioner, or commit other torts."
The court concluded that the first amendment did not prevent a resolution of Pastor James’ claim that the church had committed libel and slander. It observed,
[The lawsuit] alleges libel and slander against [the denomination] for having written, said and published "with actual malice" false defamatory statements (regarding sexual misconduct) about Pastor James …. We conclude that the trial court should not have declined jurisdiction on this count. The first amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes concerning religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization" and from challenging the binding authority of a decision of the tribunal of the church regarding any such matter. Neither of these prohibited actions has occurred or is likely to occur here …. Assuming, as we must for the purpose of this appeal only, that the accusations were false, the publication of those false statements was a secular act, which, "although delivered in the milieu of religious practice [was] used allegedly to cloak a secular purpose: in this case, to injure reputation." The core of the complaint against the denomination is the malicious publication of the allegedly false charges. That does not present what is "essentially a religious dispute." It is a secular dispute which may be adjudicated according to the established rules of common law and relevant statutes. The right of the [denomination] to the free exercise of religion, including the disciplinary and governance functions involved in the ecclesiastical proceedings, will not be impeded by the prosecution or outcome of these civil proceedings.
The court did acknowledge that the denomination’s public statements concerning Pastor James’ sexual misconduct may well have been protected by a conditional privilege. It stated the general rule as follows, "An occasion makes a publication conditionally privileged if the circumstances lead any one of several persons having a common interest in a particular subject matter correctly or reasonably to believe that there is information that another sharing the common interest is entitled to know …. The common interest of members of religious associations is recognized as sufficient to support a privilege for communications among themselves concerning the qualifications of the officers and members and their participation in the activities of the society."
In summary, the first amendment did not prevent Pastor James from suing his denomination for libel or slander as a result of public statements concerning his alleged sexual misconduct, but the denomination may be exempted from liability on the basis of the so-called "common interest" privilege.
Application. This case illustrates two important lessons. First, churches may be sued for publicizing information concerning accusations of misconduct brought against a pastor or lay staff member. According to this court, such lawsuits are not necessarily barred by the first amendment, assuming they can be resolved without any inquiry into religious doctrine. Second, a "common interest" privilege prevents statements from being defamatory if there is a genuine "common interest" in the publicized information among those to whom the statements are communicated. Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese, 744 N.E.2d 1116 (Mass. App. 2001).
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