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.