THE CHURCH AND THE INTERNET

Many churches post information about their services, their pastors, and their members.  Some post worship bulletins and newsletters.  Some of these contain information such as announcements of events.  Most churches would not think it represented any sort of risk because most churches consider themselves open to the public and events are open to the public.  Churches that have thought about it one way or the other would consider their routine internet postings cloaked in First Amendment free speech protection regardless of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, although a few would consider that applicable as well.  Because the web posting was intended for members and other interested persons, most churches would not consider that their posting might be read by villains.

In Doe v The First Presbyterian Church USA of Tulsa, 2017 OK 15, www.oscn.net, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that public announcement on the internet of a baptism was protected under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine (aka “church autonomy doctrine”).  The majority opinion reviewed the development in Oklahoma of “church autonomy doctrine.”  However, because in the last twenty years there have only been a couple of cases in the Oklahoma state level appellate court, the majority also had to canvass a few of the numerous federal court decisions.

The Plaintiff Doe was a Syrian by birth that immigrated to the United States and submitted to baptism in a public worship service at a Presbyterian church.  There is a suggestion in the dissenting opinion the church did not televise the baptism, as it did other parts of its worship service, in recognition that Doe’s “conversion” from Islam to Christianity as evidenced in baptism would make his return to Syria problematic or unsafe.

Doe sued claiming he was captured upon return to Syria, tortured, threatened with execution, and that he escaped by shedding his bonds, grabbing a firearm, and shooting his paternal uncle.  He apparently alleged that he was stabbed when he returned to the United States by another relative in retaliation for shooting the uncle.

Neither the majority nor the dissent seemed to view the allegations of the Plaintiff in the broader First Amendment light of freedom of speech.  The dissent tried to build an argument that there might have been a privacy expectation that was tortuously violated because the court viewed the baptism as “unusual.”  However, the dissent went on to note that historically baptism records were important public records even if in the modern era that is not true outside of church practice.  The sub silento point was that baptismal records have always been part of the public record and no rule has ever been enacted that would attempt to limit a church’s’ right to publish its own records.  With that point in hand, the dissent did not reach the seemingly obvious conclusion that posting on the internet of a public church record does not infringe on a privacy expectation because there is no such expectation in such records.

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