The law of defamation during church disciplinary actions is complicated by the multiplicity of approaches taken in each state and because such cases are rare. Indeed, the cases are so rare that changes in societal mores and norms, not to mention law, have probably changed dramatically between the incidence of such cases.
In Laguerre v Maurice, 2020 NY Slip Op 07877 (NY App. 2020), the defendant pastor allegedly told the 300-member congregation during a “membership” meeting that the Plaintiff, an Elder in the congregation, was a homosexual who viewed gay pornography on the church’s computers. The Plaintiff sued claiming the statement by the pastor was defamatory per se. The defendant pastor alleged the statement, if made, was part of an ecclesiastical disciplinary process over which the court had no jurisdiction. Further, the defendant pastor alleged the statement, if made, was made to the membership and was protected by a common interest privilege. The Court held there was no ecclesiastical issue because neutral principles of law would suffice. The Court held the Plaintiff’s allegation the pastor’s statements to the membership were made with malice made any common interest privilege inapplicable. The malice alleged was that the statements were only made to remove Plaintiff as an Elder and force him out of church membership and not to vindicate a moral or religious position. Thus, the case was not outright dismissed. However, the Court affirmed dismissal of the theory of recovery for defamation per se, overruling a prior 1984 decision of the Court along the way, by holding allegations of homosexuality were no longer defamatory per se. The Court held state public policy no longer considered allegations of homosexuality defamatory per se.
Unless denominational or church governance documents require statements about the basis of church disciplinary actions to the membership, rather than just the church leadership, such statements should be avoided for obvious reasons. Churches that deem homosexuality as immoral must still exist in a society that no longer permits discrimination against homosexuals. That does not require abandonment of morality, but it does require intelligent co-existence. See, 1 Timothy 5:19-20. Most churches have moved well past the era in which divorced persons were ostracized and so, too, might that happen regarding other mores.