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Oregon Attorneys at Law
Last week, the Oregon Court of Appeals addressed a First Amendment issue that had been untouched by both the United States Supreme Court and the Oregon courts. In Tubra v. The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Oregon Court of Appeals determined that the First Amendment did not divest a lower court of jurisdiction to consider a defamation claim against a church pastor.
Plaintiff was the interim pastor of Vernonia Foursquare Church. He was appointed by Pastors Cooke and Swor, the district superintendent and supervisor. After a permanent pastor was hired for Vernonia and plaintiff was released, Cooke and Swor drafted a letter that Swor read aloud to the Vernonia congregation regarding the circumstances surrounding plaintiff’s departure. The letter accused plaintiff of misappropriation of church funds and dishonesty during his tenure as interim pastor. Plaintiff sued Cooke, Swor and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel for, among other things, defamation based on the letter.
After a trial on the merits, during which the jury found for plaintiff, the defendants moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that the First Amendment operated to deprive the court of jurisdiction over the defamation claim. After a hearing, the trial court agreed and overturned the jury’s verdict.
The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that church pastors are not per se exempt from defamation claims. The court announced that the same test guiding courts in fraud cases against religious institutions should guide courts dealing with defamation claims against church pastors. Jurisdiction hinges on whether the representation at the heart of the fraud or defamation case is “purely religious as a matter of law.” If so, the First Amendment deprives the court of jurisdiction; if not, the court may hear the case.
Determining whether a representation is purely religious involves three inquires. First, is the defendant organization of a religious nature? Second, does the representation itself relate to the religious beliefs and practices of the organization? If the answers to these first two inquires are “yes,” the First Amendment deprives the court of jurisdiction unless the statements were made for a “wholly secular” purpose. Some ideas, such as “the nature of a supreme being” and “the value of prayer and worship” must always and in every context be purely religious as a matter of law. Other ideas, however, can be religious only because the one espousing them is doing so for a religious purpose.
Here, the Court of Appeals determined that the alleged defamatory statements –that plaintiff had misappropriated money and demonstrated a willingness to lie — did not relate to the religious beliefs and practices of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and as such, were not purely religious as a matter of law.
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