Defamation in Church Business Meetings

Courts can resolve defamation claims that do not involve interpretation of religious doctrine.

Key point 4-02. Defamation consists of (1) oral or written statements about another person; (2) that are false; (3) that are "published" (that is, communicated to other persons); and (4) that injure the other person's reputation.

A Georgia court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving the defamation claim of a deacon who was falsely accused of adultery and theft of church assets by a member at a church business meeting. At the close of a church business meeting, a member (the "defendant"), who was not on the agenda, stood up and demanded to read a written declaration that he had prepared. In front of all those present, he read aloud from the document, accusing a deacon (the "plaintiff") of having committed adultery on various occasions and of having attempted to steal money from the church. In fact, the accusations were false, and the defendant acknowledged that he did not have any facts to support the accusations. The plaintiff sued the defendant for defamation, and a jury found in his favor and awarded him $125,000 in damages.

On appeal, the defendant claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because it involved church governance, faith, and procedure. The appeals court acknowledged that "civil courts have no power or authority to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious organization concerning doctrines, faith, or belief." However, this does not mean "that our courts are prohibited from addressing all disputes that arise in an ecclesiastical context," and that when a dispute "does not involve inquiry into church doctrine, faith or other ecclesiastical matters, the civil courts are not prohibited from adjudicating the dispute."

The court noted that this case involved a defamation claim based on accusations of adultery and attempted theft, and that "such conduct is not protected by the doctrine of separation of church and state [merely] by utterance [of the accusations] during the course of a church meeting …. Because this case does not require an impermissible inquiry into ecclesiastical matters, and instead involves resolution of a slander claim, the trial court properly exercised its jurisdiction over the dispute."

What This Means For Churches:
This case is important for the following reasons:

(1) The courts. The case illustrates that some communications by church members regarding other members may be defamatory. The court acknowledged that the civil courts cannot resolve such disputes if doing so would require an inquiry into religious doctrine. On the other hand, the courts can resolve defamation claims involving statements accusing church members of other wrongs requiring no interpretation of religious doctrine.

(2) Personal liability of members. The case demonstrates the substantial personal liability that church members face when they accuse other members of criminal behavior, even in the course of a church business meeting. Giles v. Heyward, 726 S.E.2d 434 (Ga. App. 2012).

This article first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2013.

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