Defamation – Part 1

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that church officials could be sued for defamation as a result of a letter that was sent to both members and non-members.

Church Law and Tax 2003-09-01

Defamation – Part 1

Key point 4-02.01. 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.

* The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that church officials could be sued for defamation as a result of a letter that was sent to both members and non-members indicating that a particular member had the “spirit of Satan” and needed to be cast out of the church. The superintendent of a regional denominational agency visited a local church to investigate reports of strife within the congregation. After visiting the church, the superintendent wrote a letter that was mailed to members of the church and some residents of the community who were not church members. The letter recounted how the superintendent had visited the church, and “rejoiced to see so many young families.” However, the letter went on to describe how the superintendent “was in despair” after a female member of the congregation (Jane) “made an effort to whisper scornfully to me that this pastor must leave.” The letter continued, “Folks, when is enough, enough? When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tearing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you? You know whether a person has the spirit of Jesus or Satan by their fruits. I am distressed and perplexed why people have tolerance and compassion for anyone who habitually tears down the Body of Christ by habitually sowing discord and pain. When the congregation is ready to acknowledge they allowed the spirit of Satan to work in their midst, express some contrition and seek help, then help will come.” The letter concluded by informing members that the staff parish committee would call a membership meeting for the purpose of disciplining Jane. Jane responded by suing the superintendent, the regional denominational agency, and members of her church’s staff parish committee (the defendants) for defamation. She claimed that the letter falsely attacked her “integrity and moral character,” causing damage to her reputation in the community.

The defendants asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it involved an internal church dispute that could not be resolved by a civil court without violating the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The trial court agreed, and dismissed the case. Jane appealed to the state supreme court. On appeal, Jane conceded that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from interfering with the disciplinary and governance matters of a church. However, she insisted that the defendants exceeded the protection of the first amendment when they published their humiliating and disparaging remarks to individuals in the local community who were not members of the church. The state supreme court agreed. It began its opinion by acknowledging that the civil courts cannot intervene in “purely ecclesiastical matters … including membership in a church organization.” Therefore, if this case involved only Jane’s discipline or excommunication, it would have to be dismissed. Further, the case would have to be dismissed “had the matter been divulged solely to the members of the church.” The court referred to the “general rule” that “the common interest of members of religious associations is such as to afford the protection of qualified privilege to communications between them in furtherance of their common purpose or interest. Thus, communications between members of a religious organization concerning the conduct of other members or officers in their capacity as such are qualifiedly privileged.”

The court concluded, however, that first amendment protection was “weakened” when the defendants send the letter to persons outside of the congregation. It observed, “First, otherwise privileged communications may be lost upon proof of excess publication or publication beyond the group interest. Second, if publication solely to church members justifies ecclesiastical status for otherwise defamatory communications, proof of publication to non-church members arguably supports the opposite conclusion.”

The defendants argued that sending the letter to non-members was irrelevant, because the fact remained that the first amendment prohibits the civil courts from resolving defamation lawsuits “when an examination of the truth of the allegedly defamatory statements would require an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine and discipline.” The defendants asserted that in order to determine whether the term “spirit of Satan” is defamatory as applied to Jane, a court would be required to study and interpret church theology and beliefs concerning Satan. The court disagreed, “The weakness in defendants’ position is that publication of the letter was not limited to a religious community or body. Given the nature of Jane’s claims, the proper focus of our inquiry is not on the meaning of ‘spirit of Satan’ within an ecclesiastical context but to determine whether the phrase has a secular meaning. In other words, could a court determine whether Jane was defamed without resort to theological reflection?” The court concluded that this was possible. It observed,

Perusing a standard dictionary convinces us that the term used by church officials to describe Jane may have religious roots but also carries a common, and largely unflattering, secular meaning. “Satan” is defined as “the great enemy of man and of goodness; the Devil: usually identified with Lucifer, the chief of the fallen angels.” Definitions of satanic and satanism [are associated with] “extreme cruelty or viciousness” and “innate wickedness” …. We conclude from these definitions that the phrase “spirit of Satan” has meaning in a secular, as well as sectarian, context …. Because we are convinced that the phrase “spirit of Satan” has a secular, as well as sectarian, meaning, and because the accusatory phrase was used by defendants to describe Jane in a communication published to more than just church members, we hold that Jane’s claim of defamation should not have been summarily dismissed by the trial court on constitutional grounds. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Application. This case illustrates two very important points. First, while the first amendment prevents statements made to church members about the discipline or status of another member from being defamatory, this protection is “weakened” or lost when those statements are communicated to persons who are not members of the church. Such communications can occur, as in this case, by letters sent to non-members. They also can occur in membership meetings attended by both members and non-members (unless the non-members are excluded from the meeting when the potentially defamatory statements are made). Second, the first amendment may not prevent churches and church leaders from being sued for defamation when they use “religious” terms such as “Satan” or “satanic” that have a negative secular meaning. Kliebenstein v. Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church, 2003 WL 21338974 (Iowa 2003).

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