Photo by Adam Paris

Photo by Adam Paris

Update (April 13, 2016): In a 3-2 decision in the case of Pfeil v. St. Mathew, the Minnesota Supreme Court, by affirming the dismissal of parishioners’ claims, appears to have declared open season in Minnesota for reckless, harmful, defamatory statements made in “formal church discipline proceedings.” As dissenter Justice Lillehaug warned (joined in dissent by Chief Judge Gildea), “[n]o matter how false and malicious the statement, and no matter how much the victim is damaged, there is no remedy whatsoever in Minnesota’s courts [for false and malicious statements made in formal church discipline proceedings].”

The majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court conceded that the dissenters’ concerns “have merit.” But the Court majority’s concern about our civil justice system getting entangled in what are religious issues trumped those concerns.

So, when a church member stands up in a “formal church discipline proceeding” and says, “John Doe raped a child…,” and John Doe (1) did no such thing; and (2) suffers terribly, financially and otherwise, from the intentional and vicious defamation, would his ensuing defamation lawsuit be “entangled” with religious doctrine? Would Doe be able to sue the defamer on those facts? Or would the Pfeil decision bar such a claim?

The Court majority ducks this question. “[T]hose facts are not before us and we leave the resolution of such a case for another day.”

I think it is pretty clear that claims of defamation in formal church discipline proceedings are not all that common so it could be a very long time until the issue gets revisited by Minnesota appellate courts. In the meantime, parishioners and religious leaders, and anyone else who speaks at formal church discipline proceedings(?), will have a little less to worry about than the rest of us do in our daily lives when we speak ill of or say hateful, inflammatory, or harmful things about other people.

Update (October 11, 2015): Star Tribune coverage: “It takes a whole lifetime to gain a reputation, and five minutes to lose it.”

Original post April 2, 2015) (Under headline: Pfeils Defiled? Minnesota Supreme Court Grants Review of the “Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine”🙂 Organized religion provides many people with important support and community from cradle to grave (and perhaps beyond that). But we have all heard of (or experienced firsthand) the drama of religious communities torn apart by in-fighting, power struggles, and bitter enmity.Whispering

Henry and LaVonne Pfeil might have experienced many hours of solace, community, and spirituality at St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of Worthington, Minnesota but, at a certain point, there was a schism. In August, 2011, St. Matthew excommunicated the Pfeils, having concluded they were guilty of “slander, gossip, and speaking against [Pastor Braun, Pastor Braun’s wife, St. Matthew, and Pastor Behnke],” to choose just a few of the handful of wrongs of which the Church condemned the Pfeils before the entire congregation.

[An aside: do you think there is a Lutheran Church of the Altered Augsburg Confession anywhere? Would that be more commonly known as a Calvinist Church?]

The Pfeils (represented by Minneapolis lawyer, Zorislav Leyderman) countered with a lawsuit claiming that they had been defamed by Worthington’s St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. The Minnesota Court of Appeals granted St. Matthew’s motion to dismiss based on the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”  The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, has recently granted the Pfeils’ petition for further review.

The Establishment Clause [in the United States Constitution] applies to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and it “forbids state action that: (1) lacks a secular purpose; (2) has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; or (3) fosters excessive entanglements with religion ([known as the] Lemon test [after a Supreme Court case]).” …. The third prong of the Lemon test, excessive entanglement, prohibits a court from inquiring into or reviewing “the internal decisionmaking or governance of a religious institution.” …. “No entanglement problem exists, however, when civil courts use neutral principles of law—rules or standards that have been developed and are applied without particular regard to religious institutions or doctrines—to resolve disputes even though those disputes involve religious institutions or actors.”

The Court of Appeals placed heavy reliance on an earlier Minnesota case with, the court held, “a strikingly similar factual situation:”

The statements here, like the statements in Schoenhals, are all related to the Church’s motives and reasons for excommunicating the Pfeils. Any examination as to the truth of these statements would be an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine under the First Amendment…. Adjudicating the truth of statements concerning sin and Christian doctrine cannot be done without impermissibly intruding on issues that are “strictly and purely ecclesiastical in [their] character.”

Counsel for the Pfeils, at oral argument, pointed out that the Pfeils were not asking the courts to decide whether they truly were “sinners” or whether they followed “Christian doctrine.” The Pfeils argued that there were allegations against them — breaches of confidentiality, lying or perpetuating false information, accusing a Pastor of stealing, and allegations of other complaints by other congregation members — which do not implicate religion. They can be determined to be true or false based on secular legal principles. But the Minnesota Court of Appeals appears to have been persuaded by the earlier Schoenhals case and the fact that “these statements all occurred during the context of internal church disciplinary proceedings…”

Since the Minnesota Supreme Court has discretion in what cases it takes, it seems to me to be likely that the Court took the Pfeils case because at least some on the court think the Minnesota Court of Appeals got it wrong. And I think the intermediate court did get it wrong. If pillars of the community, such as an established church in a relatively small town in Minnesota are beyond the power of our justice system for allegedly defamatory statements publicized to the community, there is a risk of great and serious harm without any chance of remedy. If, on the other hand, Church members and leaders are held accountable for allegedly defamatory statements, I do not see a meaningful threat to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause so long as the courts’ inquiries focus on basic aspects of a state law defamation claims and steer clear of adjudicating religious questions.

 

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