(CN) – The First Amendment doesn’t bar a former pastor’s claim that he was defamed by a church’s accusations that he misappropriated $3,000 and demonstrated a “willingness to lie and steal,” the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled.
While serving as interim pastor of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel 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, according to Tubra, the gift was questioned 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. A later email from the divisional superintendent to Swor’s secretary stated 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.”
Tubra sued Swor 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.
Judge Rex Armstrong reinstated the verdict on appeal, ruling 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,” Armstrong wrote. “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.