The First Amendment dictates that religious organizations are entitled to decide matters of church governance, faith and doctrine without state interference. Accordingly, as a general rule, courts may not hear disputes involving religious law, principle, doctrine, discipline, custom or administration. In what has come to be known as the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine, courts should normally abstain from adjudicating issues involving theological or spiritual judgment, or the internal governance of religious bodies. Courts will often classify the issue as one involving jurisdiction, noting that the religious bodies have exclusive jurisdiction over their own internal workings.
For example, the Supreme Court of Virginia once considered a church pastor’s defamation claim against a church deacon based on his statement that the pastor had “borrowed over $100,000 from believers and has not returned the money.” While an express or implied accusation of theft would normally be treated as defamation per se under Virginia law, the court declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment “divests a civil court of subject matter jurisdiction to consider a pastor’s defamation claims against a church and its officials.”
Still, courts may exercise jurisdiction over defamation actions involving religious organizations where “neutral principles of law” may be applied to resolve the dispute. The Supreme Court of South Carolina recently granted certiorari to consider the question of whether a pastor may use the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to shield himself from defamation liability stemming from statements he made about the church’s trustees at a congregational meeting or whether the court could apply neutral principles of law to decide the case. The court found that “a tortfeasor is not shielded from liability simply by committing his torts within the walls of a church or under the guise of church governance.”
Clinton Brantley, the pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church, told his congregation during a meeting that Trustees Ira Banks, James Bell and Vernon Holmes had, unbeknownst to him, placed a mortgage on the Church’s property in order to purchase an apartment building, that the Trustees failed to insure the apartment building, and that due to their mismanagement, funds were missing. Brantley urged the congregation to remove the Trustees, which it did.
The trustees sued Brantley for defamation, alleging that his statements were false and defamatory. Brantley moved to dismiss, arguing that the First Amendment barred the court from hearing the case due to the religious nature of the claims. The circuit court granted Brantley’s motion, finding that any alleged defamatory statements were made during the course of a congregational meeting where church business was being discussed. According to the circuit court, it was not appropriate for it to intervene in such a church matter and it did not have jurisdiction to do so. The court of appeals, however, reversed the dismissal of the defamation claim, holding that the defamation claim could be resolved using neutral legal principles without examining any religious questions. The Supreme Court of South Carolina granted certiorari to review the reversal of the circuit court’s dismissal of the defamation claim.
The court examined whether the case could be decided without delving into religious matters. In South Carolina, defamation requires a plaintiff to show that (1) defendant made a false and defamatory statement; (2) the unprivileged publication was made to a third party; (3) the publisher was at fault; and (4) either actionability of the statement irrespective of special harm or the existence of special harm. The court found that the truth or falsity of Brantley’s simple declaratory statements could be ascertained without examining religious issues. The pastor admitted that he published statements to a third party-the congregation–and whether he made the exact statements alleged could be determined without consideration of religious issues. Likewise, deciding whether the statements harmed the trustees would not require an examination of religious issues. Therefore, adjudication of the defamation claim would not require an inquiry into religious law, principle, doctrine, discipline, custom or administration.
Brantley argued and the circuit court emphasized that the statements were made in a religious setting in which church governance was discussed such that they were outside the bounds of neutral principles of law. However, the higher court would not allow the setting in which allegedly defamatory statements were made to defeat jurisdiction where the claim is susceptible to resolution through neutral principles of law. The court pointed out that Brantley could not assault the trustees in church nor could the trustees embezzle money without facing liability. Like assault and embezzlement, defamation is a tort, and the location of a tort should not dictate a court’s ability to adjudicate it. In other words, a tortfeasor is not shielded from liability simply by committing his torts within the walls of a church or under the guise of church governance. To find otherwise would be to grant tort immunity to religious practitioners enabling them to make false and harmful statements as long as they do so in a religious setting.
The court posed situations in which neutral principles of law would not apply to a defamation claim. For example, if Brantley had stated that the Trustees were sinners, not true followers of God or had violated church law, the court would not have jurisdiction because it could not adjudicate the matter without delving into church doctrine and governance.
One justice wrote a dissenting opinion with which a second justice concurred. The dissenting justice noted that the alleged defamatory remarks concerned the relationship between Brantley and his Board and the Trustees and their role in church affairs and spiritual life. The dissent felt that these issues were inextricably linked to church governance and that a court could not resolve the matter without becoming ensnared in the internal workings of the church’s system of self-governance.