Key point 4-02.01. Ministers may be liable for making defamatory statements if a civil court can resolve the dispute without any inquiry into church doctrine or polity.
Ministers may be liable for defamation if they communicate false statements to other persons that injure the reputation of another. To illustrate, in one case a minister publicly stated that a member of his congregation had a “vile spirit and utter disrespect for leadership,” and declared that another member had associated himself with a pastor who “under the role of minister of Jesus, is one of Satan’s choicest tools.” A court found such remarks to be defamatory.9 Brewer v. Second Baptist Church, 197 P.2d 713 (Cal. 1948).In another notable case, a Roman Catholic archbishop was found guilty of defaming a priest by publicly referring to him as an “irresponsible and insane” person who was “morally blind” and “disobedient to the laws of the church.”10 Hellstern v. Katzer, 79 N.W. 429 (Wis. 1899).
- A minister left a pastoral position in Alaska and accepted a call as minister of a church in Tennessee. When he presented himself to the church to begin his duties, he was informed by church officials that because of derogatory information the church had received from a denominational official (a “presbyter”) in Alaska, the church would not hire him. The presbyter had informed church leaders that the minister was divorced, dishonest, unable to perform pastoral duties because of throat surgery, and that he had made an improper sexual advance to a church member in Alaska. The minister sued the presbyter for defamation and interference with contract. A state supreme court ruled that it could resolve these claims without violating the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. It rejected the presbyter’s contention that these claims involved pastoral qualifications (a “core ecclesiastical concern”). With regard to the defamation claim, a court would simply have to determine whether or not the presbyter made the statements attributed to him. There would be “no need to determine if [the pastor] was qualified to be a pastor or what those qualifications may be.” 11 Marshall v. Munro, 845 P.2d 424 (Alaska 1993).
- A Florida court ruled that a church member could sue his pastor for defamation for publicly alleging that he was a homosexual. 12 91 So.3d 887 (Fla. App. 2012).
- A Tennessee court ruled that a pastor had not defamed a former church member by sending an email to members of the congregation explaining the church’s response to a recent lawsuit naming the church as a defendant. The court stressed that for a communication to be defamatory, “it must constitute a serious threat to the plaintiff’s reputation. [It] does not occur simply because the subject of a publication finds the publication annoying, offensive or embarrassing. The words must reasonably be construable as holding the plaintiff up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. They must carry with them an element of disgrace.” 13 Davis v. Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2015 WL 5766685 (Tenn. App. 2015).
These examples suggest that ministers should refrain from making public remarks that might diminish the reputation, respect, goodwill, or esteem of other persons. However, if a minister does communicate a disparaging remark about another, he or she may be able to assert one or more defenses to a charge of defamation. These defenses are described later in this section.