DEFAMATION LIABILITY AND TERMINATED EMPLOYEES
Churches and religious schools are periodically faced with the dilemma of having to terminate a priest, pastor, teacher, or other employee and then answer questions from the congregation and other employees about why the person was let go. Churches and religious schools can feel torn between wanting to explain what happened and fearing civil liability for defamation (a false, unprivileged statement that causes injury to another) to a person who is upset that they were fired. The Oregon Court of Appeals stated the law in this area in Tubra v. Cooke, 233 Oregon Court of Appeals 339 (2010), a case John Kaempf defended.
In the Tubra case, the court held: “If the organization is of a religious character, and the alleged defamatory statements relate to the organization’s religious beliefs and practices and are of a kind that can only be classified as religious, then the statements are purely religious as a matter of law, and the Free Exercise Clause [of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution] bars the plaintiff’s claim. In defamation law terms, those statements enjoy an absolute privilege. If, however, the statements-although made by a religious organization-do not concern the religious beliefs and practices of the religious organization, or are made for a nonreligious purpose-that is, if they would not ‘always and in every context’ be considered religious in nature-then the First Amendment does not necessarily prevent adjudication of the defamation claim, but the statements may nonetheless be qualifiedly privileged under established Oregon law.” Id. at 357.
Thus, applying this test, the court in Tubra held that the defendant church could be held liable for defamation based on statements its employees made to its congregation that the plaintiff, a former church pastor, was no longer employed by the church because he had “misappropriated funds” and had shown a “willingness to lie and steal.” Id. at 341-346. The court rejected the defendant church’s argument that because the allegedly defamatory statements were all made solely within the church and related to plaintiff’s duties as a pastor, they could not subject defendant to civil liability pursuant to the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment, which is the rule followed in the majority of other courts that have addressed the issue. Id. at 358-359.
Therefore, in light of the Tubra decision, churches and religious schools in Oregon should be very careful about what is said, and to whom, when a priest, pastor, teacher, or other employee is fired or they may face civil liability for defamation. Only statements that solely relate to the organization’s religious beliefs and practices and are of a kind that can only be classified as religious will be entitled to First Amendment protection against liability in Oregon. Statements that do not concern the religious beliefs and practices of the religious organization, such as accusing someone of stealing, will likely not be subject to First Amendment protection.
When in doubt, an Oregon church or religious school should not make any organization-wide statement (such as an email) about why a priest, pastor, teacher, or other employee was fired.