• Key point 10-15. The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church’s liability for defamation.
* A District of Columbia court of appeals ruled that a pastor could be sued for defamation for falsely informing a public gathering that a church member had been sued for sexual harassment. A pastor allegedly informed a public gathering that a church member had been sued for sexual harassment. The member insisted that he had never been sued for sexual harassment, and that the pastor ‘made up’ the story in response to the member’s allegations of misappropriation of church funds by the pastor. The member sued the pastor for defamation, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress. The pastor asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented the courts from intervening. The court refused to dismiss the case, and the pastor appealed.
An appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court observed:
The lawsuit alleged that the defendant had recklessly made a defamatory statement about [the church member] “to numerous people at a public gathering,” while knowing that it was false because “the member had never been accused of sexual harassment.” Although the pastor was alleged to have made the statement to divert attention from the irregularities of which the member accused him, the gravamen of the complaint was the asserted publication of a defamatory falsehood with negligent, and even reckless, disregard for its truth or falsity.
The pastor asserted that statements made to church members about matters of ‘mutual concern or common interest’ are protected by a qualified privilege, meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with malice. In this context ‘malice’ refers to statements that are known to be false, or made with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness. The court rejected the pastor’s qualified privilege defense for two reasons. First, it stressed that the qualified privilege only applies to statements made to other members of a church. Since nonmembers were present at the public gathering where the allegedly defamatory statements were made, the qualified privilege did not apply. Second, even if the statements were made only to church members, the qualified privilege would not apply since the pastor’s baseless accusations of sexual harassment were malicious. The court observed: ‘A statement exclusively to church members would not shield the pastor from liability if, as the complaint alleged, he made the statement recklessly, with knowledge of its falsity—in short, with malice.’
The court concluded that the First Amendment did not prevent it from resolving the member’s defamation claim, since ‘there are no church matters involved, and the only issues concern a public statement that accuses the member of sexual harassment.’ It continued: ‘While courts must decide disputes about church property, polity, and administration without resolving controversies over religious doctrine and practices, not every civil court decision jeopardizes values protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not categorically insulate religious relationships from judicial scrutiny, for to do so would necessarily extend constitutional protection to the secular components of these relationships. The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom cannot be construed to protect secular behavior, even when it comprises part of an otherwise religious relationship between a minister and a member of his or her congregation.’ Lipscombe v. Crudup, 888 A.2d 1171 (D.C. App. 2005).
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