Ex-church member’s defamation suit against pastor reinstated

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Florida appeals court has reinstated the defamation claim of a man who sued his former pastor for calling him gay and saying that his upcoming marriage was a sham designed to conceal his homosexuality.

Darrel Bilbrey joined First Pentecostal Church of South Brevard in 2007, and became friends with the pastor, David Myers. Myers served as a mentor to Bilbrey and the two had a business as well as friendly relationship. Myers sponsored Bilbrey to obtain a license to minister in a limited role in the Pentecostal church.

However, at some point Myers asked Bilbrey whether Bilbrey was gay. Bilbrey denied being gay. Bilbrey alleged that Myers then falsely accused Bilbrey in public of being a homosexual, saying so in a sermon and in conversations with others, including the father of Bilbrey’s fiancée.

Bilbrey filed a lawsuit against Myers and Myers’ church asserting several claims, including defamation. He alleged that Myers’ comments about his sexual orientation were false and harmful. Myers defended himself on First Amendment grounds, asserting the “church autonomy doctrine,” which provides that courts cannot probe into ecclesiastical or church matters. This doctrine is also known as the religious-autonomy principle or the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine.

The doctrine is grounded in both religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment — the free-exercise and establishment clauses. A Florida trial court agreed with Myers and said the church-autonomy doctrine required the dismissal of Myers’ lawsuit.

However, the Court of Appeals of Florida, 5th District, reinstated the defamation claim in its June 29 opinion in Bilbrey v. Myers. The appeals court said lower courts are divided in how they apply the church-autonomy doctrine. Some courts apply it broadly, preventing a wide array of lawsuits against churches and their leaders.

“Most courts, however, have adopted a narrower view of the doctrine and hold that the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are not violated if the tort claims can be resolved through the application of ‘neutral principles’ of tort law, particularly where there is no allegation that the conduct in question was part of a sincerely held religious belief,” the appeals court said.

According to the appeals court, Florida has adopted the narrower view of church autonomy and often allows tort suits against the clergy.

“The First Amendment does not grant Myers, as pastor of FPC, carte blanche to defame church members and ex-members,” the appeals court said. “If untrue, the statement that a person is a homosexual has long been recognized as potentially defamatory outside the context of any religious doctrine or practice. This claim can be adjudicated without implicating the First Amendment and was improperly dismissed on the basis of the church autonomy doctrine.”

Related: N.Y. appellate court: Calling someone gay isn’t slander

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