While we have examined many cases in which an insider, a member or a terminated employee, asserted defamation claims based on actions allegedly taken by a church, and typically found the outcome in those cases to restrict or prohibit the defamation claimed, there has never been a prohibition of defamation claims by outsiders. Likewise, defamation of outsiders, such as non-members, by a church or religious leader should never be considered a “safe harbor.”
In One for Israel v Reuven, Order on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss (SD FL 2022), the federal trial court refused to dismiss a defamation case brought by missionaries employed by the Plaintiff against a vocal religious leader. The Defendant religious leader maintained a website, a mobile app, and a YouTube channel to promote religious belief. The Defendant posted a video to his platforms in which he alleged the Plaintiffs attempted to assault and batter a religious leader during a debate about certain religious issues. The video making the allegations was not a video of the event but only of Defendant’s allegations. The video was viewed 7,500 times, according to the Court, before the Defendant interviewed the alleged victim of the assault and learned no such assault ever occurred or was attempted. The Defendant alleged the missionaries were “public figures” and had to plead and prove “actual malice.” The Defendant alleged the Court would have to decide religious issues and therefore was prohibited from hearing the case by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The federal trial court held the missionaries were not public figures because the religious issue between the Plaintiffs and the allegedly assaulted religious leader, though important to the participants, was not a great public concern and was not “discussed in the news.” The Court held “theological debates do not generate comparable public controversy.” The Court held the Plaintiff’s lacked “special prominence” in the religious issue and could not be shown to be more than “tangential participants.” Finally, the Court held the alleged defamation had no relationship to the religious issues. The Court held the allegation of defamation was sufficiently pled as noted above and because “one can draw a reasonable inference that such a statement would likely have a significant impact on the profession of a missionary.” The Court held the defamatory statements did not raise any religious issue, but rather were about “a violent attack that did not happen.”
The federal trial Court might have overstated the general notion that religious theological debates “do not” engage the public notice or appear in legitimate news reporting. The better statement would have been, “usually do not.” The current movements toward disaffiliation from denominations over abortion and homosexuality clearly evidence it can be otherwise. Regardless, in the case reported, the issues may not have reached such prominence. The trial Court’s more important ruling was that the alleged “violent attack that did not happen” was not related to a religious issue. In Florida, defamation per se includes allegations charging someone with an “infamous crime” such as attempted assault and battery when it did not happen.