A Missouri court ruled that it was barred from resolving a former church school principal’s claim that she had been defamed by statements made by her former employer.

Church Law and Tax2003-07-01


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 4-02.03. 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.

Key point 10-15. The first amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church’s liability for defamation.

* A Missouri court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a former church school principal’s claim that she had been defamed by statements made by her former employer prior to her termination, but it did allow her to sue on the basis of a defamatory statement allegedly made when she was no longer an employee. A Catholic priest served a church that also operated a private school. The priest was assigned by his bishop to another church, but he chose to remain in the community and moved in with the female principal (“Anne”) of the school and her husband. Several church members became uncomfortable with their former priest living with the school principal and her husband. Some felt that the arrangement allowed the former priest to continue to influence school administration, while others felt that it was inappropriate for the priest to be living in the same home as a married couple. As a result of this unrest, Anne’s contract was not renewed when it expired at the end of the academic year. Anne later sued the bishop and diocese (“church defendants”) for defamation. She alleged that the bishop, on numerous occasions, had informed other persons that “he had been told” there was a sexual affair going on between Anne and her former priest, and that “there is a cloud hanging over the school” due to Anne’s “living situation” with the former priest.

The church defendants asked the court to dismiss Anne’s lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment. They insisted that they have a constitutionally protected “right of religious autonomy” which allows them to run their church and school without interference from the courts. They claimed that this right of religious autonomy includes the right of religious organizations to be free from governmental interference in personnel matters, including the hiring and firing of the organization’s own religious officers. Therefore, the decision to renew or not renew the contract of the principal of a religious school is not subject to review by secular authorities.

A state appeals court agreed with the church defendants that the first amendment “stands as a limitation on civil court jurisdiction over disputes which are either essentially religious in nature or are sufficiently intertwined with church polity as to constitute a threat of entanglement with religious doctrine or practice.” Such disputes include “matters of doctrine, discipline, ordination and removal of personnel, and religious practice and polity.” On the other hand, the court cautioned that the civil courts may exercise jurisdiction “in disputes having no issues of religious doctrine, policy and practice so long as courts utilize a ‘neutral principles of law’ approach and judges do not become entangled in questions which are essentially religious.” As for claims of defamation, the court concluded,

To allow the defamation claims to be litigated would be to allow civil court jurisdiction to enter the back door of the religious entity in question and allow judicial probing of procedure and church polity, with [a jury] sitting in judgment on whether the viewpoint, values, politics, and educational practices of the diocese …. The allegedly defamatory statements in question in this case were generally made in connection with the decisions of the church officials as to the non-renewal of Anne’s contract, and were made by, to, and about people who were part of the religious organization in question …. This case involves the ability of this church and diocese to operate within its own sphere according to its own methods, without judicial interference …. As a practical matter, it is impossible to separate the defamation from the non-renewal …. To allow a defamation suit to be litigated in connection with the termination of a church officer would tend to “have a chilling effect” on the management of the religious entity and the “communication of important ideas and candid opinions.”

While most of the allegedly defamatory statements regarding Anne were made prior to the non-renewal of her contract, one was made afterwards. Anne alleged that the bishop, knowing that Anne no longer was an employee, sent a memo to another person in which he accused Anne of “ineffective leadership” and being involved in a “situation” that was “a violation of professional boundaries that is giving public scandal.” The court concluded that this communication “was not connected to the non-renewal issue, but instead came a substantial period of time after the personnel issues were resolved.” As a result, the court allowed Anne to sue the church defendants on the basis of this communication. However, it cautioned that the trial court “must consider first amendment protections related generally to the governance of the diocese … and also the defense of common law conditional privilege, as well as any other defenses.”

Application. This case illustrates a number of important points. First, churches generally cannot be liable on the basis of defamation for statements made in connection with the termination of a church employee. Second, a church may be sued for defamatory statements so long as the case can be resolved without any inquiry into religious doctrine or intrusion upon internal church polity and governance. Third, the court allowed the former principal to sue the bishop and diocese for statements made by the bishop about her when she was no longer a church employee. The court was persuaded that such comments did not enjoy as much constitutional protection as statements made about her before she was terminated. Church leaders should pay special attention to this aspect of the court’s ruling. Fourth, 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. Other courts have concluded that matters of faith, and a person’s fitness to teach in a church-affiliated school, are matters of common interest. As a result, statements concerning such matters cannot be defamatory unless made with malice. This is a very difficult standard to prove, which means that communications addressing matters of common interest generally will be defamatory only in exceptional cases. State ex rel. Gaydos v. Blaeuer, 81 S.W.3d 186 (Mo. App. 2002).

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