A Lesson for Churches in the Edouard Litigation

In Bandstra v. Edouard, defense attorneys have filed motions to dismiss on behalf of the URCNA, Covenant Reformed Church, the Consistory, and four individual elders.  The elders, who are being individually sued for making statements that express or imply moral guilt on behalf of the two female plaintiffs, filed separately.  Two arguments in their memorandum are their First Amendment defense and the “qualified privilege” defense; churches should pay close attention to the second.

As for the First Amendment defense,

Attempting to discern truth or falsity in any of these alleged statements would run afoul of the First Amendment.  The court or a jury would have to decide whether Plaintiffs fell into “temptation,” whether they “sinned,” whether they were “repentant,” and whether they were entitled to or had been granted “forgiveness” by their church.  As the plain language of the alleged statements demonstrates, this inquiry would require the court or a jury to study and interpret church theology and beliefs concerning temptation, sin, forgiveness, and repentance. “Whether a member of a church has been faithful to the doctrines of the church cannot be determined without understanding the doctrines  of the church.” [citation omitted]

But it is the qualified privilege defense that churches should carefully consider. Under that defense,

The “general rule” under Iowa law is that “communications between members of a religious organization concerning the conduct of other members or officers in their capacity  as such are qualifiedly privileged.”… Such intra-congregation communications are privileged because members of religious associations share a “common interest” that warrants the protection of “communications between them in furtherance of their common  purpose or interest.”… [citations omitted]

Another case further explains the qualified privilege:

First, otherwise privileged communications may be lost upon proof of excess publication or publication “beyond the group interest.”… Second, if publication solely to church members justifies ecclesiastical status for otherwise defamatory communications, proof of publication to non-church members arguably supports the opposite conclusion.

The lesson for churches: if you have a sensitive matter that must ultimately be relayed to your congregation, do so but go no further. Have a meeting of church members only to explain the situation and steer away from communicating the matter in a way that is easily accessed by outsiders. If you do this you enhance the probability that you won’t be found liable for a defamation lawsuit.

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11 Comments

Filed under Courts, Religious rights

11 responses to “A Lesson for Churches in the Edouard Litigation

  1. Thanks for the update. I’m too cheap to pay another $25 for the Iowa Courts subscription plus the charge to get the filings! I’ll follow it in the media from this point on.

    • I don’t think you need a subscription to just look at the recent filings. Check it and let me know.
      One curious quirk on the docket is the judge saying they only get 20 minutes for the motion to dismiss. Must be a rocket docket in Knoxville these days

  2. Richard

    A good warning for us to heed as elders. Thanks for the info!

  3. Ugh. More of a mess out of Pella. Your legal analysis and reference to the prior case of defamation involving a United Methodist dispute is helpful, though sad.

  4. sean

    Thanks MM. So hold a congregational meeting if necessary, otherwise keep it off email and social media. I’m actually gonna forward that to our session seeing as we’ve gotten more and more reliant on email communication, particularly the diaconate trying to coordinate urgent needs. Good reminder.

    • Yes, I think that’s prudent. Really, church discipline is only the business of the church anyway. Then imagine something of a scandalous nature getting back to the person’s neighborhood or employer. Just tell it to the church.

  5. Which was more or less my point over at OL the other day wrt to all that SGM jazz. Not only what you say here, but it just seems like the airing of dirty laundry, and indulging it seems like the negative participation in religious celebrity. And spare me the “victims need a voice” stuff.

    • The OPC Book of Discipline says “The purpose of judicial discipline is to vindicate the honor of Christ, to promote the purity of his church, and to reclaim the offender.” Those are done sufficiently with an announcement to church members, and a broader announcement would tend to be undermine an effort to reclaim the offender. So, yes.

  6. Unless it is a matter that the govt. demands be reported to the police. ie sexual misconduct esp. with children may require reporting. So you better have serious eye witness or camera proof.

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