In most instances of what might be considered defamatory statements, the Courts will not intrude if the alleged defamation must be judged based on church canon law or doctrine.  However, if the alleged defamation may be judged solely under Neutral Principles of Law, a case might proceed.

In Belya v Metropolitan Hilarion, Decision and Order (SD NY, 2021), the federal trial court overruled a Motion to Dismiss because the defamation alleged that the written letters seeking confirmation of the Plaintiff’s election as bishop were forged or false.  The trial court held that the allegation of forgery could be determined by application of Neutral Principles of Law.  Future proceedings in the case might terminate in favor of the defendant or the plaintiff so the underlying facts of the case are yet to be determined.  On a Motion to Dismiss, only the sufficiency of the factual allegations of the Complaint are tested.  The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine did not appear to the Court as a prohibition of a determination of whether an improper signature or seal resulted in a forgery or whether documents were falsified.

Generally, defamation allegations revolve around pejorative subjective judgments based on canon law, doctrine, or theology by a critic that the target has violated a church tenant.  These types of cases require Courts to exceed the boundaries of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine to determine the truth of the matter and are generally dismissed.  The reported case may contain those allegations, too, but the only allegation that was required to make the case viable was the allegation of forgery and falsification of documents.  That may also be the only allegation that survives to trial.  The more secular an alleged defamation appears, the more likely it would be that a Court might not abstain.

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