Defamation – Part 1

The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church’s liability for defamation.

Church Law and Tax 2006-11-01

Defamation – Part 1

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

* A Tennessee court ruled that a dismissed pastor could sue members of his former church for defamation as a result of statements they made about him following his dismissal. The statements were made ‘outside the confines of the church and in front of other church members, local law enforcement, and members of the local community.’ A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the defamation claim was ‘too closely entangled’ with the decision to terminate the pastor’s employment. A state appeals court reversed this ruling, and ordered the case to proceed to trial. It conceded that civil courts have no jurisdiction over ‘inner ecclesiastical matters’ of a church involving ‘discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law.’ However, “not all actions of church officials are free from state interference.” In cases involving defamation by church officials, the courts ‘must look at whether the slanderous or libelous statements were made during the course of an ecclesiastical undertaking. If made during an ecclesiastical undertaking, such as the discipline or removal of a pastor, then such actions may be found too close to the peculiarly religious aspects of the transactions to be segregated and treated separately—as simple civil wrongs. However, if done apart from any ecclesiastical undertaking, no protection may be afforded under the First Amendment, thus subjecting churches to civil liability.’

The court noted that the pastor’s lawsuit alleged that the defamatory statements did not occur in the course of his termination as pastor, and were not made ‘during any other ecclesiastical undertaking of the church.’ Rather, they were made ‘outside the confines of the church after he had been terminated and were made in the presence of church members, local law enforcement, and members of the surrounding community.’ As a result, the statements were ‘not too closely entangled with the decision to terminate the pastor’s employment to treat them as a civil wrong.’

Application. The refusal of the civil courts to resolve employment disputes between churches and clergy generally extends to defamatory statements made in the course of the termination process. But, this principle may not apply to statements made after a pastor’s termination. Ausley v. Shaw, 193 S.W.3d 892 (Tenn. App. 2005).

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