Even in light of recent Supreme Court decisions regarding federal employment claims against churches and parachurch organizations, some common law tort claims remain actionable against churches. We have reported many times regarding defamation claims. Defamation that is solely internal in the organization or in the web of organizations that make up a denominational authority is not likely to remain actionable long if it is at all. Defamation between different organizations in the same denomination, or to outsiders, may or may not be the foundation of viable claims.
In McRaney v North American Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, Slip Op. (5th Cir. 2020), the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed the dismissal entered by the trial court. The Court of Appeals held that the dismissal was premature because the Complaint, the first document in a federal civil lawsuit, stated a civil claim and did not on its face appear to raise ecclesiastical issues. Also, the case was not brought as an employment claim. The only theories of recovery espoused were for intentional interference with business relationships, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Plaintiff was formerly employed as the Executive Director of the General Mission Board of Maryland / Delaware. The Plaintiff alleged the Defendant made false statements about him that caused him to be fired from his position, caused him to be “uninvited” to speak at a large mission symposium, and posted a picture of him at the Defendant’s offices to malign him. On remand, discovery may still lead to dismissal of the case by motion for summary judgment, in which more may be considered than merely the contents up to the four corners of the Complaint.
The lesson to be learned is that there are litigation risks other than wrongful termination and federal employment law claims. While defamation cases are rarely successful, churches communicating negative information about a former employee to a prospective new employer should do so only to protect the public good rather than merely because an employee fell out of favor or left hard feelings.