Defamation – Part 1

A New York court ruled that the first amendment prevented it from resolving a lawsuit brought by a minister claiming that he had been defamed by statements made about him.

Church Law and Tax2000-03-01


Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

A New York court ruled that the first amendment prevented it from resolving a lawsuit brought by a minister claiming that he had been defamed by statements made about him that suggested he had been removed from the ministry and was guilty of sexual misconduct. A Presbyterian minister (the “plaintiff”) sued his presbytery, a church, and four other Presbyterian ministers. The lawsuit claimed that the church and three of the four ministers published a newsletter falsely stating that the plaintiff was no longer an ordained Presbyterian minister. Apparently, the presbytery had placed the plaintiff on its inactive minister roll earlier in the year. The plaintiff then filed an appeal with the synod. The appeal upheld the presbytery’s decision. Eventually, however, the plaintiff’s appeal was successful. As a result, the lawsuit alleged that the statement in the newsletter was false.

The lawsuit also alleged that one of the four ministers, at an annual meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, falsely stated that the plaintiff “should be removed from the ministry because of his sexual misconduct.” The lawsuit asserted that this same minister later falsely stated, in the presence of third persons, that the plaintiff “has done something that he shouldn’t have done. He’s guilty of sexual misconduct and should be removed from the ministry.”

The presbytery, church, and all four defendant ministers asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it involved an ecclesiastical matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction. The court agreed. It observed the following:

It should first be noted that the Presbyterian Church of the United States has established a procedure by which any minister who believes that he or she has been injured by rumor or gossip may initiate an action called a “vindication.” Once initiated, the presbytery must appoint a committee to investigate and report its findings. [The United States Supreme Court has ruled] that the first amendment permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. In this regard, the Court stated that “when this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them.”

The courts have not only declined to accept jurisdiction over disputes which would require the court to adjudicate matters of church doctrine or governance, but have also declined to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over disputes involving the church and its members which do not concern strictly religious issues, such as employment discrimination; age discrimination; racial discrimination; and negligent hiring. In these cases, the courts refused to accept jurisdiction because doing so would have required them to delve into the church constitutions, bylaws and procedures for settling disputes.

The court concluded that this refusal by the civil courts to exercise jurisdiction over ecclesiastical-related matters “has extended to allegations, such as here, of defamation.” The court then cited several decisions that reached this conclusion, and noted that “although the alleged defamatory statements and publications at issue in these cases did not express religious principles or beliefs, the courts nevertheless concluded that they could not constitutionally intervene because the alleged defamatory conduct related, as here, to a dispute over the plaintiff’s fitness or suitability to act as a clergyman.” The court concluded that under these circumstances it lacked jurisdiction to resolve this dispute “since all of the plaintiff’s allegations of defamation are related to his employment and status as a minister of a church and to the defendants’ evaluations of his qualifications for practicing his profession as a minister.” As a result, the court granted the defendants’ request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Application. This case illustrates the difficulty that ministers face in persuading the civil courts to resolve lawsuits pertaining to their fitness or qualifications. According to this court, and many others that it cited, this reluctance extends to claims of defamation involving statements made by other ministers or in official church publications. Jackson v. Presbytery of Susquehanna, 686 N.Y.S.2d 273 (Sup. Ct. 1999). Termination

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