(CN) – A fired pastor can keep the $355,000 he from a defamation suit against the church that accused him of misappropriating $3,000 and demonstrating a “willingness to lie and steal,” the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In January of last year, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel was not protected from the verdict under the First Amendment.
While serving as interim pastor of the church in Vernonia, Ore., Tim Tubra allegedly accepted a gift of $3,000 to help with health care premiums.
Though the church council had approved the transaction, Tubra said, it questioned his motives when a new pastor took over. The church charged Tubra with misappropriation of funds and ordered him to leave.
Ron Swor, the district supervisor of the church, read a statement to the Vernonia congregation about Tubra’s departure.
“It is now evident that there has been, to some extent, a financial misappropriation by former pastor [Tubra],” Swor read.
Later, John Michael Cooke, the church’s divisional superintendent, wrote in e-mail to Swor’s secretary that Tubra may have “want[ed] to stir up trouble.”
“He has already demonstrated a willingness to lie and steal, and to purposely [sow] discord against the division,” Cooke wrote, according to the court filings.
Tubra sued Swor, Cooke and the church for defamation. The jury ruled for Tubra, but a judge overruled the verdict and agreed with the church that the First Amendment barred Tubra’s complaint.
A three-judge panel of the Oregon appellate reinstated the verdict on Jan. 27, 2010, finding that the case was not so religious in nature as to bar Tubra’s claim.
“The alleged defamatory statements – that the pastor had misappropriated money and had demonstrated a willingness to lie – would not always and in every context be religious in nature,” Judge Rex Armstrong wrote for the court. “Thus, even though the statements related to plaintiff’s conduct as pastor of the church, that fact does not render those statements absolutely privileged as a matter of law under the Free Exercise Clause.”
Because that was the only basis for the church’s motion for a directed verdict, Armstrong ordered the reinstatement of the original jury verdict.
In declining to take up the church’s appeal, the Supreme Court did not issue any comment on the case.