WHEN CAN AN OREGON CHURCH OR RELIGIOUS SCHOOL BE HELD LIABLE FOR DEFAMATION CONCERNING THE FIRING OF AN EMPLOYEE?
Oregon churches and religious schools are sometimes faced with the dilemma of having to terminate a priest, pastor, teacher, or other employee and then answer questions from the congregation or 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 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).
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 (emphasis added).
The holding in Tubra puts Oregon in the minority position nationwide. The majority of other courts that have addressed this issue hold that such statements, when made solely within a church, are protected by the First Amendment, and thus cannot give rise to defamation liability, even when they cannot “only be classified as religious.”
Applying the test above, the Oregon Court of Appeals in Tubra held that the defendant church could be held liable for defamation based on statements its employees made solely 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 thus reinstated a Multnomah County jury verdict for the plaintiff in the amount of approximately $350,000. The court rejected the defendant church’s argument that because the allegedly defamatory statements were all made solely within the church and related to the 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 to the U.S. Constitution, which is the rule followed in the majority of courts that have addressed the issue. Id. at 358-359. The First Amendment states, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Therefore, in light of the Tubra decision, the leaders of 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. In Oregon, 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 are entitled to First Amendment protection against civil liability. 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 err on the side of not making any statement about why a priest, pastor, teacher, or other employee was fired.