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Florida court invokes ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in defamation case

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 28, 2011 | 7:51 am

I mentioned last month the ministerial exception doctrine that is at issue in the case before the U.S. Supreme Court of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC. The Court has long held that religious organizations have the freedom “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” That includes the employment of their ministers, which is at issue in Hosanna-Tabor. It also shields religious organizations from liability for alleged defamation associated with moral judgments about an individual’s behavior.

The latter at times bars courts from having jurisdiction in cases like Kaplan v. Kahn. In that New York state case, the defendant pastor allegedly told the plaintiff, who was renting a room to the pastor’s daughter and a married man with whom the daughter was living, that “you are running a house of prostitution and you are a whore, and you have made it just like the house of prostitution that was in the Bible when Hoffney and Phineas took in prostitutes into the temple.” But the court dismissed for want of jurisdiction.

More recently—as in last week—a Florida court invoked the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to dismiss the case of Allen v. Holmes, in which the plaintiff accused a church pastor of spreading lies about her in an effort to remove her from the church community. But, as Howard Friedman at the Religion Clause explained, the court felt that the question of whether those statements were defamatory or intended to inflict emotion distress turns on determining whether the pastor’s statements were lies or a response to behavior out of line with church doctrine:

Thus resolution of the case would involve an inquiry into church governance and the conduct expected of church members—matters which the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine preclude the court from considering.

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