Defamation Claim Against Church

Courts may resolve church disputes if they can do so without inquiring into church doctrine.

Church Law & Tax Report

Defamation Claim Against a Church

Courts may resolve church disputes if they can do so without inquiring into church doctrine.

Key point 6-06.4. Church officers and directors can be removed from office in the manner authorized by the church’s governing documents. It is common for church bylaws to give the membership the authority to remove officers and directors who engage in specified misconduct or change their doctrinal position.

A South Carolina court ruled that it could resolve a defamation claim brought by dismissed church board members against their church since it could do so solely on the basis of neutral principles of law without any inquiry into church doctrine. A church relocated to a new facility. The congregation thereafter approved the church board’s request to borrow funds to purchase and improve a nearby apartment building. After the purchase, the apartment building caught fire and the church learned it did not have insurance on the building. The church also learned that church property was serving as collateral for the loan used to purchase the apartment building. At a congregational meeting, the pastor made a presentation to the congregation providing the reasons he believed the board members should be removed from office.

The dismissed board members (the “plaintiffs”) sued the pastor and church for negligence, and the pastor for defamation and emotional distress. The plaintiffs alleged that at the congregational meeting, the pastor told the congregation that the plaintiffs had placed a $300,000 mortgage on the church property to purchase some nearby apartments without his knowledge and failed to insure them. They asserted that the pastor also informed the congregation that they had mismanaged money and money was missing from the church. They further alleged that the pastor informed the congregation that he had been constantly deceived by the plaintiffs and that they should be removed from the board. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court began its opinion by noting that when resolving church disputes, most courts apply the “neutral principles of law approach.” Under this approach: “(1) courts may not engage in resolving disputes as to religious law, principle, doctrine, discipline, custom, or administration; (2) courts cannot avoid adjudicating rights growing out of civil law; [and] (3) in resolving such civil law disputes, courts must accept as final and binding the decisions of the highest religious judicatories as to religious law, principle, doctrine, discipline, custom, and administration.”

The court concluded that the plaintiffs’ defamation claim could be resolved using legal principles without examining any religious questions, and, “because the trial court can completely resolve a church dispute on neutral principles of law, the First Amendment commands it to do so.” It stressed that the trial court “would not need to look at the church’s beliefs to determine if the statements constitute defamation. Accordingly, the trial court erred in dismissing the defamation cause of action. Therefore, the dismissal of the defamation action should be reversed and the action remanded for trial.” The court noted that courts in other states had refused to resolve defamation claims involving church leaders, but concluded that those courts “could not determine if the claim was defamation without looking into the churches’ beliefs.”

The court agreed with the pastor and church that the plaintiffs’ negligence claim had to be dismissed since it could not be resolved without delving into church doctrine. It noted that the plaintiffs alleged that the church had been negligent in hiring the pastor and not conducting its own investigation into the facts before the congregational meeting was held. The negligence claim against the pastor alleged that he was negligent in asking the congregation to remove the members of the board and in not conducting his own investigation of the facts before the meeting was held. The court concluded: “All of these allegations involve the administrative procedures of the church which … courts cannot examine.”

What This Means for Churches:

This case illustrates the view of some courts that the First Amendment does not prohibit the civil courts from resolving defamation claims against churches and church leaders so long as such claims can be resolved solely on the basis of neutral principle of law without reference to church doctrine or polity.

There is another interesting aspect of this case that should be noted. The plaintiffs relied upon the minutes of the congregational meeting in supporting their claim of defamation. The minutes taken at the congregational meeting reflect that the pastor stated “the church had been mortgaged and there was no insurance on the buildings that had been purchased,” a $300,000 mortgage he did not know about had been placed on the church building, and he had been “constantly deceived throughout.” This illustrates the importance of using care in drafting minutes of membership or board meetings to ensure that statements are not being recorded that can be used against the church in subsequent litigation. Banks v. St. Matthew Baptist Church, 706 S.E.2d 30 (S.C. App. 2011).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law and Tax Report, March/April 2012.

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