• Key pointTermination Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
Key pointDefamation 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 10-13.2. Several courts have refused to hold churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister. In some cases, this result is based on first amendment considerations.
A Texas court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment religion clauses from resolving several claims brought against a church by a former missionary who had contracted a serious illness while engaged in missions work in Guatemala. A young man ("Jon") applied for missionary appointment with the Mormon Church and was sent to Guatemala. Shortly after his arrival, Jon became ill. While he was treated on a number of occasions by medical personnel, his condition did not improve. He had a fever of 106 degrees, experienced severe headaches and a skin rash, and became delirious. At one point he leaped off a moving bus because he thought someone was chasing him. The Church flew Jon back to Utah where he was placed in a "behavioral science unit" of a hospital since there were no diagnosable physical condition. After several days he was discharged and returned to his home in Texas where he was unable to work full time due to his medical difficulties. Though Jon's symptoms indicated that he had contracted malaria, his treating physician could not confirm that he was suffering from that disease.
Jon later sued the Church for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, defamation, breach of contract, invasion of privacy, false imprisonment, breach of warranties, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Jon alleged that the Church failed to warn him of the risk of contracting malaria or other diseases, failed to educate him on preventing malaria and other diseases, failed to provide him with adequate protection from insects and disease, failed to provide adequate medical care in Guatemala, placed him in the "behavioral science unit" of a Utah hospital upon his return to the United States, terminated his medical insurance, requested copies of his medical records, placed copies of his medical records into his Church record, noted in its records that his mission was terminated due to an emotional or mental problem, published information about his mental condition, and terminated various religious privileges. The trial court dismissed all of Jon's claims on the ground that they were barred by the first amendment's guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion. Jon appealed. The appeals court agreed that Jon's claims had to be dismissed.
Most of Jon's claims pertained to inadequacies in the Church's training of missionaries. The court, in dismissing these claims, observed:
[Jon's] lawsuit challenges the Church's missionary program, including its missionary training program. The missionary program's purpose … is to spread the Church's religious message around the world and to bring new members into the Church. The training program's sole goal is the preparation of missionaries to preach the Church's religious message anywhere in the world. The entire missionary program, including the training program, is a religious activity. If [Jon] were to prevail in this lawsuit, government regulation through the courts would require the Church to augment its missionary training program to teach the following subjects to its missionaries assigned to Guatemala: (1) the probability of contracting various diseases in Guatemala; (2) the hazards and perils in Guatemala due to the instability of the Guatemalan government, the people in the area, the working and living conditions, and diseases; (3) the sources, nature, types, prevention, symptoms, availability of medication for and the cure rate of diseases in Guatemala, and the effect of the diseases on one's physical and emotional states; (4) the inadequacy or limitations of medical personnel available in Guatemala; (5) the inadequacy or limitations of housing facilities provided for its missionaries in Guatemala, including the lack of screens on windows, indoor plumbing, mosquito netting, insect repellent, etc.; (6) the methods of preparing food (and avoiding certain foods) to prevent disease; and (7) that the Church would not immunize missionaries in Guatemala for malaria and yellow fever.
Essentially, Jon's claims allege that the Church inadequately trained him to be a missionary because it did not disclose the above information to him. If the courts address these allegations and find for [Jon], then the courts will be ruling that the curriculum at the missionary training program left [him] unprepared to preach the gospel in Guatemala. If the courts find for the Church, then the courts will be approving the curriculum of the training program and essentially certifying that [Jon] was prepared to preach the gospel in Guatemala. Either way, the courts' reaching these claims would constitute active government involvement in the religious activity of training missionaries …. Likewise, the courts' approval or rejection of the working and living conditions and the level of medical care available in Guatemala would actively involve the government through the courts in the Church's religious activity of operating a mission …. [T]he judicially imposed governmental controls [Jon] seeks are aimed solely at a religious institution's performance of its religious activities.
Claims Involving Internal Church Policies
The court noted that four of Jon's claims (the termination of his health insurance due to the termination of his mission, the Church's obtaining copies of his medical records without his consent and including them in his membership file, the Church's notation in its records concerning the reasons for the termination of Jon's mission, and the revocation of various religious privileges) "involve internal policies of the Church." For example, to determine whether Jon's medical insurance had been terminated due to the "premature" revocation of his missionary appointment, a court would have to decide "whether the termination of his mission was wrongful or premature." The court noted that the first amendment bars the courts from resolving employment disputes involving ministers, and it concluded that Jon had to be treated as a minister because of his missionary status.
The court concluded that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom "prohibits government interference with matters of internal organization."
Jon alleged that the Church harmed him by communicating information in its records regarding his mental condition to persons outside his grandparents. The court concluded that the defamation claim was not barred by the first amendment since "the communication of [Jon's] mental condition [does not] concern the internal policies of the Church or matters of faith or ecclesiastical doctrine." However, the court concluded that Jon's defamation claim had to be dismissed since defamation involves the utterance of false statements about another, and there was no evidence that any statement made by the Church was false.
False Imprisonment And Emotional Distress
Jon claimed that the Church falsely imprisoned him and caused him emotional distress by placing him in a hospital's behavioral science unit. The court ruled that these claims were not barred by the first amendment because neither "involved the internal policies of the Church or matters of faith or ecclesiastical doctrine, and did not actively involve the government in the Church's religious activities or excessively entangle the government with religion." However, the court concluded that Jon failed to prove either theory of liability. For example, to prove false imprisonment Jon had to show that (1) the Church willfully directed, requested, or participated in his detention; (2) without his consent; and (3) without legal authority. The court noted that Jon had failed to prove that the Church sought an involuntary commitment of him or instructed the hospital to detain him against his will.
The court noted that for Jon to prove that the Church engaged in intentional infliction of emotional distress he had to show "(1) the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; (2) the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) the actions of the defendant caused the plaintiff emotional distress; and (4) the resulting emotional distress was severe." Jon alleged that the Church caused him emotional distress by placing him in the behavior sciences unit. The court disagreed since there was no evidence that the Church was involved directly in placing Jon in this unit or in detaining him there against his will. So, while both the false imprisonment and emotional distress claims were not barred by the first amendment, Jon failed to prove the essential requirements of either claim and therefore they had to be dismissed.
Jon claimed that a confidential relationship existed between him and the Church, creating a fiduciary duty by the Church to him that it breached. The court noted that Jon based his allegation of a fiduciary relationship on his relationship with the Church, and therefore a recognition of such a relationship "would necessarily involve excessive entanglement by the government with the Church" in violation of the first amendment.
The first amendment, like the entire Bill of Rights, is a limitation on the authority of government. How, then, could the court conclude that a resolution of most of Jon's claims against the Church would violate the first amendment religion clauses? The simple answer is that Jon was using the civil courts (an integral part of the government) to sue the Church. Therefore, any recognition by a civil court of those claims involving doctrine, religious practice, or internal Church policy would amount to a violation of the Church's first amendment rights by an agency of government .
Application. This case will be instructive not just to missions boards and agencies, but also to local churches that organize short-term missions trips involving members of their congregation. Turner v. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 18 S.W.3d 877 (Tex. App. 2000).
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