• 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.
• Key point 4-02.1. 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 10-15. The first amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church’s liability for defamation.
A Georgia court ruled that a $3 million judgment against certain church members for defaming other members of the congregation was not excessive. Several church members (the “defendants”) were sued by other members (the “plaintiffs”) 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. A trial 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.
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.” The jury awarded the plaintiffs $3 million in damages.
An appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision. In response to the defendants’ claim that the $3 million judgment against them was excessive, the court conceded that “this amount is indeed very large,” but it declined to reduce it. The court referred to the impact of the defamatory statements upon the plaintiffs, their families, and their businesses. Because of the accusations of criminal activity, they had been “shunned” by their church, friends, community, and business patrons.
Application. 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 (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.
(2) Church liability. 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.
(3) Personal liability of members. The case demonstrates the substantial personal liability that church members face when they accuse other members of criminal behavior. The defendants in this case accused the plaintiffs of several forms of criminal behavior, including thievery and child abuse. Unfortunately, acts of theft and child abuse sometimes happen in churches. This case suggests that church leaders should be very hesitant to publicly accuse a member of these or other criminal acts, without clear and convincing evidence and upon the advice of an attorney. Esenyie v. Udofia, 511 S.E.2d 260 (Ga. App. 1999). Defamation
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