An Illinois court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment from resolving a pastor’s “invasion of privacy” lawsuit.

Church Law and Tax2005-11-01


Key point 2-04.1. 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 point 4-04. Many states recognize “invasion of privacy” as a basis for liability. Invasion of privacy may consist of any one or more of the following: (1) public disclosure of private facts; (2) use of another person’s name or likeness; (3) placing someone in a “false light” in the public eye; or (4) intruding upon another’s seclusion.
Invasion of Privacy

* An Illinois court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment from resolving a pastor’s “invasion of privacy” lawsuit against a church that had sent out a letter containing information that damaged his reputation and led to his unemployment as a minister. A pastor (Pastor Richard) was ordained by a local church (Church A) in 1989. A few years later he resigned his membership and ministry in Church A and became senior pastor of Church B. A few years after that he resigned his position at Church B and became senior pastor of Church C, a nondenominational and independent church. Pastor Richard was also ordained by Church C. While serving as pastor of Church C, he received a letter from the board of Church A requesting that he respond to “disturbing reports” they received about his conduct and informing him that if he did not respond they would rescind his ordination. The letter listed six charges against him, including the following:

(1) You have had an improper relationship with a divorced single woman, violating the Biblical teaching that an elder be above reproach. (2) Your decision to file a divorce petition against your wife violates the Biblical admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. (3) Your misuse of alcohol violates the Biblical admonition that an elder be temperate, self-controlled. (4) Your misuse of your personal funds as well as the deceitful means used to obtain the [Church C] Bank account violates Biblical admonition that an elder should not be a lover of money.

Pastor Richard called a member of the board at Church A and informed him that the allegations had been investigated by Church C and determined to be false. He further informed the board member that Church A no longer had authority over him because he had resigned his membership and his ministry with church many years before. In response, Church A sent Pastor Richard a second letter requesting him to appear before the church board on a specified date to respond to the charges set forth in their earlier letter. This later letter also informed him that if he did not appear his ordination would be revoked. Pastor Richard did not appear before the board, and he received a letter a short time later informing him that his ordination had been revoked. Copies of the letter were sent to some of the board members of Church C. The letter also stated:

Effective immediately, in light of our decision to revoke your licensing and ordination, we now request the following: (1) That you no longer function in the role as minister. (2) That you no longer accept the title ‘Reverend’ or ‘Pastor’ or any other such title that would imply that you have credentials for spiritual leadership and ministry. (3) That you inform the leadership and membership of [Church C] of our action …. We will continue to pray for you asking that God will graciously change your heart so that you may be restored to your wife and those whose trust you have betrayed.

Pastor Richard later sued Church A, and its pastor and a board member, for “invading his privacy” by sending false and misleading letters stating that he could no longer act as a minister and could no longer accept the title of “Reverend,” “Pastor,” or any other title that would imply that he had credentials for spiritual leadership and ministry.

Pastor Richard’s lawsuit claimed that as a result of Church A’s second letter more than 200 people withdrew their membership and attendance from Church C under the belief that he no longer could be a minister, and that the church no longer could pay his salary or conduct services because of the diminished membership. The complaint further alleged that Pastor Richard could not obtain employment elsewhere as a minister because the letters were disseminated and discussed widely in the evangelical protestant Christian community. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine which generally bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes. Pastor Richard appealed.

Church A insisted on appeal that its letters were based upon its biblical authority over the ordination that it bestowed upon Pastor Richard and that the first amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state court from examining the religious tenets underlying its authority. Pastor Richard claimed that the first amendment prohibits a church from imposing religious authority over a person who has severed his membership, and that a court would not have to delve into church doctrine to resolve his claims.

first amendment

The court began its opinion by noting that “ecclesiastical abstention means that courts may not determine the correctness of an interpretation of canonical text or some decision relating to government of the religious polity. Rather, civil courts must accept as a given whatever the religious entity decides.” However, courts can resolve a dispute that arises within a church “if the dispute does not require determination of any doctrinal issues.”

The threshold question, then, was whether Pastor Richard’s claims could be resolved “without inquiry into religious principles and doctrine.” The court concluded:

We do not need to inquire into or interpret religious matters to decide whether the letter [sent by Church A] was false and misleading and was an invasion of privacy. We are not required to look at religious doctrine or the biblical underpinnings of a church’s right to revoke an ordination to determine whether its conduct invaded [Pastor Richard’s] privacy by publishing false information. While both sides of this case focus on the religious theory underlying whether the church had the ability to revoke an ordination of a person who resigned his membership and pastoral position, that is not the harm alleged in the complaint. The harm alleged in the complaint resulted from the alleged conduct of [Church A] in placing [Pastor Richard] in a false light when revoking that ordination. Even if the reasoning behind the church’s decision to revoke the ordination is not reviewable because it is “steeped in matters of theological import,” we may review the church’s conduct in carrying out the revocation. The church has admitted that it does not have the authority to remove Pastor Richard as a minister or pastor at [Church C]. Deciding whether [Church A] published a letter placing [Pastor Richard] in a false light, by appearing to revoke his ability to be a minister and pastor at [Church C] does not require extensive inquiry into religious law and polity.

invasion of privacy

Church A claimed that even if Pastor Richard’s claims were not barred by the first amendment, he could not prove an invasion and therefore his lawsuit had to be dismissed. The court noted that there are four kinds of invasion of privacy, and that the one Pastor Richard was alleging was “publicity placing another person in a false light.”

The court noted that to state a case for the “false light” invasion of privacy, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) the defendant’s actions placed the plaintiff in a false light before the public; (2) the false light would be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and (3) the defendant acted with actual malice (that is, with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard for whether the statements were true or false). Pastor Richard claimed that the second letter sent out by Church A was false and misleading as it reflected that Church A had determined that he could no longer be a minister and could no longer be the pastor of Church C. In fact, representatives of Church A testified at trial that the church had no authority over Church C, or over who could minister for Church C, and that only the leadership of Church C had the authority to decide who could be a pastor for their church.

The court pointed out that the second letter stated that, in light of Church A’s decision to revoke Pastor Richard’s ordination, he could “no longer function in the role of a minister” or “accept the title ‘Reverend’ or ‘Pastor’ or any such other title that would imply that you have credentials for spiritual leadership and ministry.” The court concluded that this evidence raised legitimate questions “as to whether the letter placed Pastor Richard in a false light by portraying him as having been stripped of all right to be a minister.”

Church A also argued that there was no “false light” invasion of privacy since its second letter did not place Pastor Richard in a false light “before the public.” The court disagreed. It defined “before the public” to mean “communication to the public at large, or to so many persons that the matter must be regarded as substantially certain to become one of public knowledge.” It also reasoned that the “before the public” requirement could be met if a “special relationship” existed between the sender of a letter and the recipients. It noted that Church A’s second letter was copied to three former board members of Church C, and it concluded, “publicity to these three men, who within a short period of time had been leaders in [Church C], would have been just as devastating as publication to the general public because of their close ties to the congregation. We therefore find that there was a special relationship between the recipients of the letter and Pastor Richard,” and so the “before the public” requirement was satisfied.

Application. Many states recognize “false light” invasion of privacy. This case is instructive because it represents one of the only cases to apply this basis of liability to a church. While the court’s analysis of “false light” invasion of privacy is helpful, its conclusion that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not apply is problematic. Most courts have concluded that the first amendment bars them from resolving employment disputes between ministers and churches, and this rule has often been extended to collateral forms of liability such as defamation and violation of civil or contract rights. It is likely that courts in many other jurisdictions would have upheld the trial court’s dismissal of Pastor Richard’s claims on this basis. Duncan v. Peterson, 2005 WL 2291285 (Ill. App. 2005).

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