Defamation Claims Asserted by Church Against Former Members

Julie Anne Smith and her family attended Beaverton Grace Bible Church for over two years. When the church dismissed one of its employees for “subversive conduct,” the Smith family sought meetings with the Pastor and Elders to discuss the situation because they felt the termination was handled poorly. During the meetings, the Smiths and church officials discussed church policies and governance. Later, an elder informed Mrs. Smith that she must “recant” or her entire family would no longer be welcome at the church. The Smiths stopped attending the church.

Mrs. Smith later learned that Oregon authorities were investigating allegations of child molestation by a teenage member of the church whom she had seen in the child care area. The Pastor and Elders came unannounced to the Smith home demanding to know whether the Smiths knew who had reported the abuse. The Pastor informed the Smiths that they were “excommunicated.”

Mrs. Smith began posting comments about the church under Google’s “reviews” of the church. Congregants, former congregants, and the Pastor also posted comments, and the dialogue about church governance and doctrine continued. The Pastor removed many postings, so Mrs. Smith began her own blog, Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors, where she continued making and encouraging comments.

Shortly thereafter, the church and its Pastor filed a defamation complaint against Mrs. Smith and her daughter based on statements they posted online. The allegedly defamatory comments included statements that the Pastor misled the congregation and used “control tactics,” that the church was not a healthy or safe place, was destructive and disturbing, and that it had a spiritually abusive environment. Mrs. Smith wrote that there is something “creepy “about the church, and she claimed that the church turned a blind eye to known sex offenders. She stated that the Pastor’s “extra-biblical legalistic teaching” was wrong and that he was a liar. Mrs. Smith’s daughter posted a Google review stating that the Pastor micro-managed things and bullied people and that one could not find grace at the church.

The Smiths responded with a Special Motion to Strike under Oregon’s anti-SLAPP statute which allows a defendant to move to strike a claim that “arises out of” a statement made in a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest. If a defendant shows that the claim indeed “arises out of” such a statement, the plaintiff must present substantial evidence that the claim will prevail.

The anti-SLAPP statute should apply, in my view, because the Internet is a “public forum” and the statements concern matters of public interest. Various segments of the population have an interest in the statements at issue, including members of churches all over the world, people concerned with questions of personal salvation, radio listeners who hear the Pastor’s sermons broadcast in the greater Portland area, persons who are the focus of the Church’s evangelism, and those debating the impact of “spiritual abuse.”

The church may end up having to pay the Smiths’ attorneys’ fees, because it’s unlikely it will be able to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits. The statements at issue concern matters of opinion, which are not actionable. Moreover, the statements involve matters of church practices and personal religious conviction, which are protected by the “church autonomy doctrine.” Finally, even if the court determines that a statement could be considered defamatory, the court will most likely find the church to be a “public figure,” which would mean it could not recover absent a showing of malicious intent. Expect to see the SLAPP act put into action out in Oregon.

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