Minister Can Sue Denomination for Defamation, Court Rules

But the minister can’t sue for denomination’s failure to follow bylaws.

Church Law and Tax1993-07-01Recent Developments

Libel and Slander

Key point: The civil courts cannot resolve disputes between clergy and denominational agencies that involve doctrinal or essentially ecclesiastical issues. However, the courts can resolve disputes that do not involve such issues.

A federal appeals court ruled that a minister could not sue his denomination for allegedly failing to follow its bylaws in suspending him, but he could sue the denomination for defamation. As one of its services for member churches, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church (the “Synod”) prepares and circulates personal information files on its ministers to churches interested in hiring pastors and advises them on the background and suitability of individual ministers. The Synod placed a document in a minister’s file stating that his spouse had previously been married. The minister claimed that the Synod took this action without consulting him or verifying the accuracy of the information, and that the information in fact was untrue. The minister alleged that because churches within the Synod automatically disqualify a minister if his personal file shows that his spouse has been divorced, the Synod effectively excluded him from consideration for employment as a pastor by circulating this false information. At the time the Synod was circulating the erroneous statement about his spouse, the minister was actively, and unsuccessfully, seeking employment in a local church. Even though he was established in his profession and over three hundred churches were in need of a pastor, the minister did not obtain a position with any church in the Synod. He sued the Synod, seeking monetary damages for his loss of income during the time that the Synod circulated the false information about his spouse and for his loss of public confidence. Specifically, he alleged that the Synod was guilty of libel, negligence, and intentional interference with his legitimate expectancy of employment. The lawsuit contained the additional charge that the Synod “unlawfully and without consideration and in violation of the [Synod’s] bylaws” withdrew his name from its list of eligible ministers. A trial court dismissed the entire lawsuit. It concluded that all of the allegations would require the court to construe Synod doctrine and to review an essentially religious decision in violation of the first amendment.

The minister appealed, and a federal appeals court ruled that some of the allegations in the lawsuit should not have been dismissed by the trial court. The appeals court agreed that the first amendment prohibits the civil courts from deciding that portion of the lawsuit alleging that the Synod violated its own bylaws by removing the minister’s name from its list of eligible ministers. The court quoted from a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court:

[T]he first and fourteenth amendments permit 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. 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. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 724-25 (1976).

The appeals court concluded that the first amendment “forbids secular courts from deciding whether religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law supports a particular decision made by church authorities. [The minister’s] claim that the Synod violated its own bylaws by removing his name from its list of eligible ministers falls squarely into the category of claims that are not justiciable by secular courts.” The remainder of the minister’s lawsuit was based upon his allegation that while his name was on the Synod’s list of eligible ministers, the Synod circulated a personal information file containing false information about his spouse. It was undisputed that his file contained the erroneous statement that a prior marriage of his wife ended in divorce. The Synod claimed, however, that the first amendment prevents the minister from proving at trial that this false information kept him from obtaining employment as a pastor. According to the Synod, any assessment of the minister’s claim for loss of income would necessitate a forbidden inquiry into his marketability as a pastor. The appeals court disagreed:

The first amendment proscribes intervention by secular courts into many employment decisions made by religious organizations based on religious doctrine or beliefs. Personnel decisions are protected from civil court interference where review by civil courts would require the courts to interpret and apply religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law. The first amendment does not shield employment decisions made by religious organizations from civil court review, however, where the employment decisions do not implicate religious beliefs, procedures, or law. At the present stage of this litigation we are unable to predict that the evidence offered at trial will definitely involve the district court in an impermissible inquiry into the Synod’s bylaws or religious beliefs. [The minister] has alleged that although over three hundred congregations were in need of a pastor he did not receive an offer of employment from any congregation while the Synod was circulating false information about his spouse. [His] fitness as a minister is not in dispute because his name was on the Synod’s roster of eligible ministers during the relevant period. Correspondence between the Synod President and [the minister] indicates that after the false information was removed from his file, [he] did receive an offer and is now a pastor. [The minister] claims that he was injured by the Synod’s alleged libel, negligence, or intentional interference with his legitimate expectation of employment. The Synod has not offered any religious explanation for its actions which might entangle the court in a religious controversy in violation of the First Amendment. [The minister] is entitled to an opportunity to prove his secular allegations at trial.

However, the court cautioned that the trial court “must exercise care to ensure that the evidence presented at trial is of a secular nature. The court has expressed concern that it may become entangled in inherently religious determinations of [the minister’s] fitness for the ministry if [he] attempts to offer evidence at trial of other efforts by the Synod to impugn his fitness for pastoral office. It is incumbent upon the court to limit the evidence at trial in order to avoid determining religious controversies. If further proceedings reveal that this matter cannot be resolved without interpreting religious procedures or beliefs, the district court should reconsider the Synod’s motion to dismiss.” Drevlow v. Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, F.2d (8th Cir. 1993), 1993 WL 112598.

See Also: Termination | Defamation – Defenses

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