(CN) – A Florida man can sue his pastor for defamation after the cleric told the congregation that the man was gay and his upcoming marriage was a sham, a state appeals court ruled.
Darrel Bilbrey joined the First Pentecostal Church of South Brevard and found a mentor in its pastor, David Myers.
Myers sponsored Bilbrey’s attempt to earn a minister’s license, and at one point, Bilbrey confided to the pastor that once when he was a teenager, an authority figure had called him a “faggot.”
Bilbrey then installed an Internet filter on his computer, with Myers serving as his “accountability partner.”
After receiving a report on the computer, Myers asked Bilbrey if he was gay. He said no. The relationship between the two men fell apart.
Bilbrey planned to get married, and according to the lawsuit Myers told church members, including the fiancée’s father, that Bilbrey was gay and that the planned marriage was a sham to cover it up.
Myers urged Bilbrey to call off the wedding and leave the state. After Bilbrey moved to Michigan and tried to work as a minister there, Myers called the new church to report that Bilbrey was gay, according to the complaint.
Bilbrey sued Myers and the church for defamation, invasion of privacy, breach of fiduciary duty and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
While the trial court dismissed all of Bilbrey’s claims, the Daytona Beach-based Fifth District Florida Court of Appeals ruled that he can take his claims of defamation and breach of fiduciary duty to trial.
The lower court had dismissed these claims on the basis of the church autonomy doctrine, but Judge Jay Cohen wrote that the doctrine does not apply in this case.
“The First Amendment does not grant Myers, as pastor of FPC, carte blanche to defame church members and ex-members. 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,” Cohen wrote.