Where plaintiff claims he was defamed by a church pastor, the court lacks jurisdiction over the case based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
Rimer was a United Methodist Church (UMC) pastor. He sued defendant for defamation arising from two letters defendant sent to plaintiff’s superiors in the UMC organization, Reverend Kim and Bishop Lewis.
“In these letters, Defendant raised concerns about the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant’s ex-wife, reporting that they are ‘living in sin’ and violating UMC tenets by doing so.
“In the letters, Defendant expressed concerns about the impact of Plaintiff’s conduct on Defendant’s two sons and on the UMC congregation of which Plaintiff served as Pastor. Defendant moves to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”
He argues the court lacks jurisdiction based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
The Virginia Supreme Court has addressed the doctrine in two cases that reached opposite results.
In Cha v. Korean Presbyterian Church of Washington, 262 Va. 604 (2001), plaintiff was one of several pastors of the Korean Presbyterian Church.
“After meeting with church members who suspected that certain church officials were misusing church funds, the plaintiff advocated for hiring an independent auditor to investigate the church’s finances. … In response, church officials threatened the plaintiff, terminated his employment, and publicly accused him of borrowing and failing to repay over $100,000 from the church. …
“The plaintiff sued for wrongful termination, tortious interference with employment, and defamation. … The Court affirmed the circuit court’s ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Cha’s claims, concluding that if the circuit court tried the case, it would have ‘become entangled in issues regarding the church’s governance as well as matters of faith and doctrine.’ …
“Specifically addressing the defamation claims, the Court wrote, ‘we hold that the plaintiff’s allegations of defamation against the individual defendants cannot be considered in isolation, separate and apart from the church’s decision to terminate his employment.’ …
“The Court noted that the defamatory remarks had been uttered at meetings of the church’s governing bodies ‘that had been convened for the purpose of discussing certain accusations against the plaintiff.’”
In Bowie v. Murphy, 271 Va. 127 (2006), the court again dealt with a defamation claim in an ecclesiastical setting and held that the circuit court could exercise jurisdiction.
In Bowie, the “Greater Little Zion Baptist Church scheduled a vote to determine whether its pastor, James Murphy, would be removed. … Plaintiff David Bowie was a deacon of the church assigned to provide security to the voting area, where one of the pastor’s supporters was engaged in disruptive and harassing conduct against congregation members who were trying to vote. …
“That supporter accused Bowie of assaulting her, and a week later Pastor Murphy repeated that allegation at a church meeting and in a letter to the congregation that called for Bowie’s removal as a church deacon.” Bowie sued for defamation.
In ruling that the circuit court had jurisdiction in Bowie, the “Court explained that in Cha, ‘the plaintiff’s defamation claims were so connected to his wrongful termination claim as to mix with ‘ecclesiastical decisions regarding the appointment and removal’ of church officials.’ …
“In contrast, ‘Bowie’s defamation claims arise solely from allegations made by the defendants that Bowie perpetrated an assault.’ … The Court reasoned that the ‘circuit court can evaluate these statements for their veracity and the impact they had on Bowie’s reputation the same as if the statements were made in any other, non-religious context.’”
But this was “equally true in Cha, where the pastor was accused of procuring himself a sizeable loan from church funds and then not paying the money back. Further, some of the defamatory statements in Bowie were made at a church meeting at which Bowie’s continuing on as deacon was the primary issue – clearly a matter of internal church governance.
“As the Cha Court held, ‘a civil court may neither interfere in matters of church government nor in matters of faith and doctrine.’ … Nonetheless, the Bowie defamation claims were permitted to proceed.”
In the case before this court, plaintiff cites a number of statements in the letters to Kim and Lewis.
“Any evaluation into the truth or falsity of claims about Plaintiffs adherence to ‘Christian values’ and to the tenets of the United Methodist Church necessarily involves inquiry into what those values and tenets are.
“Additionally, in both counts (defamation and defamation per se), Plaintiff claims that the statements damaged his professional reputation and imply an unfitness to perform the duties of his employment. …
“An evaluation of these claims of professional harm and alleged unfitness to perform job duties, will require wading into the particulars of those pastoral duties and the criteria for evaluating effective and ineffective Methodist pastors. …
“Plaintiff has pleaded that the defamatory statements imply an unfitness to do his job. The Court ‘can only conclude that if a civil court were to exercise jurisdiction … under these circumstances, the [C]ourt would be compelled to consider the church’s doctrine and beliefs because such matters would undoubtedly affect the plaintiff’s fitness to perform pastoral duties.’
“Determining whether Plaintiff is fit or unfit to perform his duties as a religious leader, requires that the Court make factual findings regarding those very duties.”
This court grants defendant’s motion to dismiss.
Rimer v. Seiler, Case No. CL22-1163, Feb. 8, 2023. Circuit Court of the City of Norfolk (Hall). Jeremiah A. Denton, Christy L. Murphy for the parties. VLW 023-8-011, 6 pp.