Employment Defamation Claims in the Ministry Context
A Proverb says that lying lips are an abomination to the Lord. Of course, lying may also be repugnant to the law. Below, we address potential defamation liability in the context of ministry workplaces.
To defame someone is to harm their reputation by making false statements. Religious organizations as a general matter appreciate the need for discretion and good faith when discussing sensitive employment-related matters, but from time to time, gossip and gripes turn into conflict; regrettable remarks are made; and imprudent emails are fired off. While
not at the top of the list of liability risks, employers should remain aware of the potential for defamation lawsuits.
As a short overview:
- Defamation claims must involve a false statement of fact; true statements cannot be defamatory. Opinions are not “false,” although adding “I heard” or “I think” before a false factual statement will not necessarily make the statement an opinion.
- The false statement must have been “published”—i.e., the statement must have been communicated to a third person (but need not be “published” in the sense that it is circulated in print).
- In some contexts, including the employment context, a "privilege" applies to the speaker and immunizes the speaker from liability (discussed in more detail below).
- “Public figures” open themselves up to criticism, and the law makes it harder for them to win defamation claims. Who qualifies as a public
figure is determined on a case by case basis: the Pope is undoubtedly a public figure, but priests and pastors may be as well.
False accusations in the ministry context
Ministries do not have a blanket exemption from defamation laws. On the other hand, a court will likely dismiss a defamation claim under the ministerial exemption (discussed in our March newsletter) if the claim would interfere with the employer's right to hire and fire ministers as it sees fit. A separate doctrine known as "ecclesiastical abstention" protects the constitutional right of churches to decide for themselves matters of church government, faith, and doctrine, free from state interference That doctrine may also lead to the dismissal of a defamation claim where the employer is a religious group if the court "abstains"
from entertaining the case.
Some recent court decisions illustrate how defamation claims have fared in the context of ministry employment:
Kelly v. St. Luke Community United Methodist Church (Texas)—Kelly was a long-time church operations director. After her discharge, she sued for defamation based primarily on statements during church meetings that she was “volatile” and the fact that she was publicly escorted from the church upon her termination by a police officer. The court concluded that almost all the statements about Kelly were made in the context of internal church
discussions: "her claims are based on actions and communications within the church pertaining to internal governance of the church and involving only church leadership, members, and staff." Court resolution of those claims "would impinge upon the church's ability to manage its internal affairs," so the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine barred them. Kelly also alleged that members of the public saw her being escorted by the police officer (a form of defamation) and, while that would not involve purely internal church matters, the court dismissed that aspect of her claim because Kelly offered "no evidence ... that any person outside the church community witnessed her being escorted by a police officer to retrieve items from her office."
Sumner v. Simpson University (California)—Sumner brought defamation and other claims after a religious university discharged her. The university argued that, as a religious group, it was free to hire and fire its instructors without court interference and that Sumner was a "minister" given her religious duties. The court agreed. That, however, only precluded Sumner's claim that her discharge was unlawful. Nonetheless, the court also dismissed the defamation claim under the ministerial exemption because the allegedly false statements were about the reason for her discharge; they were “‘part and parcel’ of the reasons for and process of terminating” her employment.
Diocese of Palm Beach v. Gallagher (Florida)—Gallagher sued his diocese for defamation after it stated he was unfit to be assigned to another church. The court held that Gallagher’s defamation claim could not be resolved without entangling the court in “what is essentially a religious dispute.” According to the court, the defamation claim turned on whether "Gallagher was doing what he was supposed to be doing as a priest and parochial administrator at Holy Name. In his interactions with parishioners, fellow priests, and the diocese hierarchy, was Father Gallagher following Church canons and teachings? Father Gallagher says yes; the diocese says no.” The court dismissed Gallagher’s claim, and the
U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to review that decision.
On the other hand, where a defamation claim can be resolved by neutral application of secular law, neither the ministerial exemption nor the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine will preclude a suit. Yet, as a North Carolina court recently stated: "This line between an ecclesiastical and a secular dispute can be difficult to discern, and requires an intensive inquiry into the relevant facts and applicable laws. Defamation and religious questions are legally contextual. Libel may sometimes cloak itself in religious terminology, but that would not prevent civil adjudication of a claim."
The takeaway from these and other cases is that, although religious groups have no blanket protection from defamation claims relating to employment issues, they are more likely to obtain early dismissal of claims filed by "ministers," claims that relate to false statements connected to an employee's discharge (or other adverse action, such as demotion), and claims that involve statements relating to doctrine and ecclesiastical matters.
Deference to internal dispute resolution
Many denominations, churches, and other religious groups have established dispute resolution processes. Often, religious
employers establish these processes because secular law and legal processes do not align with their world view, and/or they see wisdom in scriptural approaches to conflict resolution. Some courts have recognized the religious underpinnings of internal conflict resolution processes and have deferred to the outcome of those processes. In some cases, courts presented with an employee’s defamation claim may defer to a decision reached by ecclesiastical adjudication of the complaint.
As noted above, "privilege" is a defense to defamation claims. A speaker has a privilege to share information with others who have a common interest in it. The privilege is not
absolute; otherwise privileged false statements that were made with malice are still actionable in a defamation lawsuit. Here are some ways in which the privilege may apply:
Strictly internal communications—e.g., a supervisor criticizes a subordinate’s behavior, a worker makes negative comments about another in a staff meeting, or an employee gets a negative performance review. In some of these examples, the allegedly false statement may not have been "published" because the statement didn't leave the room, so to speak, so a defamation claim would fail on that ground. In other instances, the speaker likely had a privilege to make statements, whether they turned out to be
false or not. Multiple staff members of a religious group may have a common interest in the conduct or behavior of a particular employee, and the privilege allows them to freely discuss the employee.
Quasi internal communications—e.g., a pastor reports on a staff member’s alleged wrongdoing to denomination headquarters or sends out an email to the congregation explaining why a staff member was released. These communications may involve third parties that, while not wholly outsiders, may not have a particular need to know the details of employment matters. Fact patterns will vary and will dictate legal conclusions about whether a privilege applies. The court in the Kelly
case broadly held that statements made to anyone affiliated with the church could not be grounds for a defamation claim, but not all courts would follow that approach.
External communications—e.g., a church publishes information about an employee on its website or gives a negative reference about a former worker to a prospective employer. Privilege almost certainly will not apply in the first example if the website is publicly accessible. Most states, however, have "job reference immunity" laws that extend the privilege to employment references. Prospective and former employers share a common interest in a worker's performance, and these laws encourage the sharing of
honest information, so long as false information is not shared with malice.
The takeaway for ministry employers is that it is always best to contain sensitive discussions about employees to the smallest set of individuals reasonably possible. In addition, while a religious organization might value transparency and openness, and might wish to demonstrate care and compassion through open communications, doing so can create liability. An email blast to the congregation that contains false statements about an employee can result in a defamation claim, even if clothed in religious and respectful terms, such as by bearing the salutation, "Dear brothers and sisters in Christ ..."
Note: While the foregoing focuses on defamation in the employment context, ministries face similar risks with regard to communications on other topics, such as discussions about church members. A letter to congregants explaining an excommunication, for example, might be fertile ground for a defamation lawsuit. In general, courts would treat those disputes as they treat employment-related claims, and courts are likely to abstain from resolving disputes over church membership.
Please let us know if you have any questions about this information.
This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be and should not be considered legal advice, and receipt of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship.