The Montana Supreme Court ruled that a husband and wife who had been "disfellowshipped" from a Jehovah's Witness congregation could not sue the church for defamation.
The couple had been disfellowshipped for marrying contrary to church doctrine. In announcing the decision to the congregation, the overseer remarked that the couple had been living in adultery according to church teachings and had been disfellowshipped for "conduct unbecoming Christians." The overseer added that "we got the filth cleaned out of the congregation, now we have God's spirit."
The court concluded that such comments were not defamatory since they were privileged and protected by the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. As to the defense of privilege, the court remarked that "it is firmly established that statements of church members made in the course of disciplinary or expulsion proceedings, in the absence of malice, are protected by a qualified privilege." The remarks of the overseer were privileged, concluded the court, and did not involve malice since "malice is defined as reckless disregard for the truth [and] does not include hatred, personal spite, ill-will, or a desire to injure."
The court added that it "would be violating the [church's] right to free exercise of religion if [it] were to find [the church's] statements actionable under state defamation law." Rasmussen v. Bennett, 741 P.2d 755 (Mont. 1987).