• Key point. Statements made in the course of church disciplinary proceedings may be protected by a “qualified privilege,” meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with malice. In this context, malice means either actual knowledge that the statements are false or a reckless disregard as their truth or falsity.
• Key point. Some courts are willing to resolve defamation claims brought by church members against other members, if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or practice.
• A Georgia court ruled that it had the authority to resolve a lawsuit brought by church members claiming that they had been defamed by other church members, since it could do so without inquiring into religious doctrine. A church and several of its members were sued by other members who claimed that they had been defamed by several statements made about them. The lawsuit alleged that in the course of a New Year’s Eve church service, certain members intentionally and maliciously announced to the congregation that each of the plaintiffs “was a witch and had practiced evil deeds upon family and fellow church members,” and that these statements were later repeated to a wider audience at another church service. The “evil deeds” allegedly practiced by the plaintiffs included practicing witchcraft, acts of bodily harm, thievery, causing infertility, stealing United States government files to harm a fellow member, and child abuse. The church and the individual members who were sued failed to respond to the lawsuit, and a default judgment was rendered against them in the amount of $500,000 for each plaintiff. The case was appealed. A state appeals court rejected the church’s argument that the dispute involved an internal church matter that could not be resolved by the civil courts. The court observed:
The civil court did have jurisdiction to entertain the complaint …. It is true that civil courts have no power or authority to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious organization concerning doctrines, faith, or belief. Thus the civil courts will not inquire into or determine the validity of the expulsion of a member from a church having a congregational form of government …. But here the statements about the plaintiffs were not done in the course of an investigation of their church membership, and plaintiffs do not seek civil court relief in the form of return to membership, which would be outside the court’s competence. Instead, they seek civil redress for intentional torts of slander. This does not involve inquiry into and decision concerning questions of doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law, rule, custom, church government, faith or practice of the church. Even where a church legitimately undertakes investigation of alleged misconduct on the part of its members and charges are privileged communications, all are not protected from civil suit. There is no privilege for charges which are actually known to be false and are made maliciously and willfully with the purpose of injuring another.
The court referred to an earlier Georgia case in which a court refused to resolve a lawsuit brought by a priest alleging defamation in the course of a disciplinary proceeding before a church tribunal. The court concluded that this earlier decision was not relevant since in the present case the statements were made “to the whole congregation and were not in the context of an ecclesiastical tribunal.” Further, the victims in this case “did not seek civil redress for a decision by the religious organization. Instead, they sought a civil remedy for a civil wrong, the violation of their civil right not to be publicly slandered, and this required no entanglement with the internal affairs of a religious organization.”
The court noted that child abuse, inflicting bodily harm, thievery, and stealing government files constitute crimes under Georgia law, and that “to falsely accuse one of committing a crime constitutes the tort of slander.” Further, “[s]uch conduct is not protected by the doctrine of separation of church and state by utterance as testimony during the course of a church service. An examination into the claims of plaintiffs would not require an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine, faith, discipline, governance, or other ecclesiastical matter.”
However, the court concluded that it could not resolve the plaintiffs’ claims that they had been defamed by the charges of witchcraft, since such an allegation implicates religious faith, belief, and practice. Further, the court concluded that the church could not be liable for defamation:
Although plaintiffs alleged that the church conspired with its members to slander them, the doctrine of respondeat superior [that is, that an organization is responsible for the acts of its agents] does not apply in slander cases. Plaintiffs did not allege or show by any record evidence that the church expressly ordered and directed [its members] to say those very words …. [A] corporation is not liable for the slanderous utterances of an agent acting within the scope of his employment, unless it affirmatively appears that the agent was expressly directed or authorized to slander the plaintiff. The same would apply to utterances of a church member. Moreover, the complaint does not state an actionable claim against the church. Allegations of slander by individuals “and other leaders” of the church do not express a claim against the church itself as a separate entity.
Finally, the court rejected the defendant members’ claim that they were protected by a qualified privilege. Specifically, the members asserted that their remarks concerning the plaintiffs “were made as testimony or confession during a worship service and thus were a church activity.” As a result, the remarks could not be defamatory unless they were made with legal malice, meaning that the members who uttered the remarks either knew that they were false or did so with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. The court disagreed, noting that “[i]n the first place, the statements in the instant case were not made in a church tribunal in the course of an investigation of alleged misconduct of church members.” Further, the individual members who made the remarks forfeited their right to prove good faith by their refusal to respond to the lawsuit. By their default, they in essence admitted the plaintiffs’ allegation of malice.
Application. This case is important for the following reasons: (1) It demonstrates the negative consequences of failing to respond to a lawsuit. In some cases, church leaders are tempted not to respond to a lawsuit on the ground that it is frivolous. However, failing to respond to a lawsuit within the time period specified by law may result in a default judgment. This can prevent the church from later asserting defenses that otherwise would have been available. (2) The case illustrates that some communications by church members regarding other members may be defamatory. However, the court recognized a number of exceptions. For example, the civil courts cannot resolve such disputes if doing so would require an inquiry into religious doctrine (such as the claim that the members had practiced witchcraft). On the other hand, the courts can resolve defamation claims involving statements accusing church members of other wrongs requiring no interpretation of religious doctrine. (3) The court acknowledged that statements made in the course of church disciplinary proceedings are protected by a qualified privilege, meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with legal malice. (4) The court noted that churches cannot be liable for defamation on the basis of comments made by individual members-unless the church directed the members to make the statements. Obviously, this will seldom be the case. So, while the individual members who make defamatory statements regarding other members may be personally liable for their statements, the church itself seldom will be liable. First United Church v. Udofia, 479 S.E.2d 146 (Ga. App. 1996). [Federal Income Taxation of Churches, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
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