Informing Church Members of Disciplinary Action

Court refuses to resolve expelled member’s defamation claim.

Key point. According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church's discipline of a member since the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding who are members in good standing of a church.

A Tennessee court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a church member's defamation claims against his pastor based on a letter that was read to the congregation.

A man ("Owen") had attended the same church for 70 years and served as trustee for 30 years. Owen claimed that his pastor gave false information to an attorney about him, which the attorney placed in a letter that was sent to the pastor. The pastor read this letter to the entire congregation during a regular Sunday morning church service. While Owen was not identified as the subject of the letter at the reading, he believed that everyone knew the letter's remarks were about him. Owen later sued the pastor for defamation. The attorney's letter was attached to the lawsuit. The letter states, in relevant part:

I have been retained on behalf of the church to demand that you immediately cease abusive and threatening telephone calls, offensive language, threats of physical harm and other inappropriate contact to its members and board. As the church had to take the extraordinary measure of having to call the sheriff's department to have you removed from the premises, this letter is intended to make clear that you are not to come back onto the church property. Any attempt to come on the church property or on the pastor's residence for any reason will be viewed as criminal trespass. In such an event, the authorities will be contacted immediately and your arrest sought.

Moreover, you have and continue to make threatening and harassing phone calls to the pastor [and] members and deacons of the church. Please cease and desist all such harassing calls. Continued calls threatening the pastor's life, health or his family will be deemed harassment pursuant to [state law] and dealt with the to full extent as allowed by law. The church and [its pastor] desire to end this unfortunate turn of events peaceably. Therefore, they ask that you go your separate way and refrain from any future contact with the church, its pastor, deacons or members.

The act of informing the members of the church of disciplinary or expulsion actions is as much within the rights protected by ecclesiastical abstention as is the church's right to take such actions, even though it may carry some kind of negative implication about the expelled member.

Owen's lawsuit alleged that these statements were false and defamatory. According to the complaint:

My reputation for good character in the community and in the church has been damaged or destroyed by the false accusations made by the pastor against me. Indeed, the pastor caused me to be expelled from my lifelong church. The attorney's letter to me, which the pastor read to the church congregation ordered me not to come back upon church property and stated that if I did so the pastor would be arrested for the crime of trespassing.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the so-called ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which generally bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes over matters of doctrine or the qualifications of members. Owen appealed. A state appeals court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Owen's lawsuit. The court explained the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as follows:

The overriding rule remains that courts cannot intrude into purely religious decisions. Thus, as with any other claim brought in the context of an intrachurch dispute, the question is whether the defamation claims can be determined without running afoul of the First Amendment. That means, can the specific defamation claim alleged herein be adjudicated "without extensive inquiry … into religious law and polity" and "without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine?" That includes inquiry into religious law, court examination of religious belief, or court review of the correctness of the church tribunal's decision.

If, to resolve the particular claim brought, a court would need to resolve underlying controversies over religious doctrine, then the claim is precluded [citing the United States Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976)]. Where the allegedly defamatory statements refer to or are based upon religious doctrine or church governance, resolution of the truth or falsity of those statements, a determination critical to a defamation action, would require courts to inquire into and resolve issues of church teachings and doctrine, clearly matters of ecclesiastical cognizance.

The court concluded that "it is clear that the exclusion of a member is an intricate part of church governance and, as such, the courts will not interfere." Owen insisted that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine was inapplicable since he is not challenging or seeking compensation related to the decision to exclude him from membership in the church but, rather, is seeking compensation for the defamatory statements in the letter. The court disagreed, noting that "the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not cloak only the disciplinary or expulsion decision itself, but also statements made attendant to the decision." It continued:

The protection afforded by the First Amendment to church disciplinary proceedings applies to statements made after the church's decision if the statements or actions are merely implementation of, still part of, inextricably related to, or a consequence of the decision …. Thus, the church's communication of the fact and reason for excommunication are protected from judicial inquiry and review.

Announcing an expulsion or disfellowship to the members of a church is part of the disciplinary proceedings, particularly where instruction to church members regarding the expelled party is part of the church's belief and practice. Thus, the act of informing the members of the church of disciplinary or expulsion actions is as much within the rights protected by ecclesiastical abstention as is the church's right to take such actions, even though it may carry some kind of negative implication about the expelled member.

Statements to church members in regard to disciplinary actions against other members are privileged for the same reasons that the membership decision is protected [quoting Anderson v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 2007 WL 161035 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007)].

What this means to the church

This case illustrates the reluctance of the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes involving the discipline or dismissal of members. This reluctance led the court to reject Owen's claim that he had been wronged despite the fact that the pastor read the attorney's letter to the congregation. 2009 WL 3518184 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2009).

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