SALEM — In what is being described as a first-of-its-kind ruling in the United States that could force churches to change the way they handle internal matters, a former Vernonia pastor’s $335,000 award in a defamation suit has been upheld by the Oregon Court of Appeals. As reported by The Oregonian, the recent ruling means a church can’t use the First Amendment as a defense against a defamation lawsuit if church officials accuse a former pastor of wrongdoing in front of the congregation.
The appeals court upheld an earlier decision by a Multnomah County jury, which had awarded Tim Tubra $355,000 after officials of Vernonia Foursquare Church accused him publicly of “misappropriation of church funds.” Tubra had filed the defamation suit in September 2005 against The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
Even though the jury ruled in his favor, the trial judge tossed out the verdict, saying that the circuit court didn’t have jurisdiction because of First Amendment issues.
Tubra, who now lives in Albany, was fired as interim pastor of the church, but was never charged with a crime. According to the newspaper, Tubra discovered later that church officials had made the accusation public in a letter read aloud to the congregation after he left his position.
Tubra took the interim position in Vernonia in November 2003 after he was laid off two months earlier because of economic reasons from his position as associate pastor at Columbia City Foursquare Church. According to the court filing, Tubra was reluctant to take the interim job because of the low pay, but agreed after the church offered him $1,100 a month for the first three months in addition to the normal $1,500 salary.
In April 2004, Tubra withdrew $3,000 from the Vernonia church’s account and explained to the church council that it had been set aside for him as a gift. However, the church’s leadership accused him of misappropriating church funds and fired him.
Tubra contended that after more than 20 years in the ministry, what happened in Vernonia left him unable to find steady work as a pastor. He had to sell his house and move into a fifth-wheel trailer with his wife.
Christopher Lundberg, Tubra’s attorney, told The Oregonian that the appeals court decision vindicated his client, who was very pleased by the ruling.
Defense attorney John Kaempf told The Oregonian that an appeal to the state Supreme Court is planned. Kaempf said the appeals court ruling runs counter to conventional interpretation by courts nationally of First Amendment rights regarding churches. He said there is a long legal tradition of churches being able to speak to church members about a church pastor’s conduct without interference by secular courts.
Contacted by The Oregonian for comment, Professor Steven Green at Willamette University’s College of Law, and John Whitehead, president of the conservative legal organization The Rutherford Institute, agreed that traditionally a church’s internal employment disputes have been off limits to courts because of the potential theological and ecclesiastical issues involved.
The Oregonian noted that in this case, however, the appeals court determined that the Vernonia church’s defaming statements were not religious in nature, so they didn’t qualify for First Amendment protections. Whitehead described the case as an unusual one.
Green predicted that the appeals court ruling would likely be affirmed if taken to the state Supreme Court. The long-range effect, he said, is that churches would have to be less informal about their internal matters and that members would have to be more careful about criticizing each other in their own churches.
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