Dalton and Tomich white logo
Dalton and Tomich white logo

Defamation and the Clergy

To what extent the pastor is protected from slander claims that might come out of an exchange that recently took place during a meeting of church members? Generally speaking, defamation claims are adjudicated under state law and members of the clergy are entitled to a qualified privilege for statements made in the pastoral context. The issues to examine are whether a privilege exists, when it would apply, and whether a clergy member can rely on such a privilege in a slander action.

Under most state laws, the four elements that make up a defamation claim are a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff, an unprivileged communication to a third party, fault on the part of the publisher amounting to at least negligence, and either actionability of the statement irrespective of special harm or actual special harm caused by publication of the statement. [1] There is a one-year statute of limitations on defamation actions.[2]

Michigan, for example, has adopted negligence as the standard of liability in defamation cases that involve private plaintiffs.[3] However, Michigan law has long held that when either a total or qualified privilege applies to the publisher of the libel or slander, the plaintiff must show malice, not negligence, based on the publisher knowing what he said or wrote was untrue.[4] Privileges exist when the importance of the communications uttered by the defendant outweigh the privacy interests of the plaintiff.[5] Communications that are clothed in a qualified privilege are presumed to have been made in good faith and it is the burden of the plaintiff to prove otherwise.[6] Whether a qualified privilege exists is a question of law that is reserved for the court to decide.[7] If a court decides there is a qualified privilege, then it is for the jury to decide whether the defendant acted within the scope of the privilege or went beyond it by acting with actual malice.[8]

For close to a century, Michigan has held that pastors enjoy a common law qualified privilege for certain communications. [9] Ohio is among the other states that recognize a qualified privilege for pastors.[10] Louisiana also recognizes such a conditional privilege, so long as the comments were made in good faith.[11]

Michigan, like other states, has held that whether a qualified privilege is present depends more on the occasion than the words that are uttered or published.[12] Statements made at church-related occasions have been found to be subject to a qualified privilege when the circumstances are such that the speaker communicates otherwise defamatory statements based on a legal, moral, or social duty the speaker owed to those with a corresponding interest.[13] Those occasions usually involve meetings between church members called to resolve or discuss some church-related issue.[14]

The burden is on the clergy member to show that he is covered by a qualified privilege.[15] Once he has shown the privilege exists, he enjoys the presumption he acted in good faith.[16] However, if the party suing the clergy member can show the defendant abused that privilege if the clergy member is shown to have acted with actual malice and bad faith.[17] The privilege will also fail if the injured party can show the clergy member has gone out of his way to publish the statements in an excessive manner.[18]

Recent Michigan case law helps shed light on qualified privileges for pastors. In Dadd v. Mount Hope Church, the plaintiff sued her church after she fell and injured her head during a religious ceremony at the front of the church.[19] After the plaintiff filed suit to recover for her injuries, the church pastor made comments critical of the plaintiff and her lawsuit in public and eventually sent out a letter to church members implying plaintiff was committing insurance fraud. Those comments led the plaintiff to file an amended complaint charging intentional infliction of emotional distress, false light, libel and slander. At trial, the court, over objection, refused to instruct the jury that the pastor made the statements under a qualified privilege and enjoyed a presumption of good faith. Instead, the jury was instructed on a negligence standard. The jury returned a guilty verdict, finding that the defendant made his defamatory comments recklessly and with knowledge that they were false.

The Court of Appeals reversed the guilty verdict as to the defamation claim, finding it was reversible error to fail to instruct the jury that the pastor enjoyed a qualified privilege in the communications in question and a malice standard applied. But the Supreme Court of Michigan reversed the appellate court, ruling that the jury found the defendant acted with malice, which meant the improper instruct was harmless error since the jury would have found the defendant guilty even if it found he had a qualified privilege.[20]

Clergy members do enjoy a qualified privilege under State law with respect to defamation claims.

[1] Mitan v. Campbell, 706 N.W.2d 420, 421 (Mich. 2005). [2] M.C.L. § 600.5805 (1), (9) [3] Rouch v. Enquirer & News of Battle Creek, 427 Mich. 157, 195 (1986). [4] Schultz v. Guldenstein, 144 Mich. 640, 641 (1906). [5] Lawrence v. Fox, 357 Mich. 134, 136-37 (1959). [6] Raymond v. Croll, 233 Mich. 268, 274 (1925) [7] Bostetter v. Kirsch Co., 319 Mich. 547, 555-56 (1948) [8] Mundy v. Hoard, 216 Mich. 478, 492 (1921). [9] Van Vliet v. Vander Naald, 290 Mich. 365 (1939); see also, Westerhouse v. De Witt, 215 Mich. 295, 299 (1921). [10] Mosley v. Evans, 630 N.E.2d 75, 77 (Ohio Ct. App. 1993). [11] Roux v. Pflueger, 16 So.3d 590, 595-96 (La. Ct. App. 2009). [12] Bennnett v. Stockwell, 197 Mich. 50, 54 (1917). [13] Dadd v. Mount Hope Church, 780 N.W.2d 763, 766-67 (Markman, J., dissenting in part). [14] See Westerhouse, 215 Mich. at 299 (a “special meeting” to reconcile church members was covered by the privilege); and Konkle v. Haven, 140 Mich. 472 (1905) (a letter about a former pastor that church members sent to another church was covered by the privilege). [15] Lawrence, 357 Mich. at 141 [16] Raymond, 233 Mich. at 274. [17] Smith v. Smith, 73 Mich. 445, 446 (1889). [18] Mundy, 216 Mich. at 492 [19] 2009 WL 961516 1, 2 (Mich. App. 2009). [20] Dadd v. Mount Hope Church, 780 N.W.2d 763 (Mich. 2010).

Attorney Advertising Disclaimer

Please note that this website may be considered attorney advertising in some states. Prior results described on this site do not guarantee similar outcomes in future cases or transactions.