Porn Implication Doesn’t Support Church Lawsuit

     (CN) – Officials with a Baptist church in Texas should not face claims that they falsely accused an associate pastor of disseminating pornography, an appeals court ruled.
     Armando Torralva sued five members of Brighton Park Baptist Church in Corpus Christi for defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
     The defendants were the church’s head pastor Rev. Heath Peloquin, head of deacons Wayne Andrus and congregation members Jessica Lenhardt, Grady Jackson and Jill Jackson.
     Torralva started serving at the church as assistant pastor in 2007. He claimed that, in 2011, Peloquin retaliated against him for revealing the church’s financial problems, which allegedly felt reflected poorly on Peloquin’s ability to run the church.
     Peloquin asked Torralva to resign, but the associate pastor refused, according to the complaint. Torralva said he was then relieved of his duties and office space, leading to Andrus’ unsuccessful attempt to gather enough deacons’ votes to remove him from office.
     The pornography charge stemmed from an email that Torralva claimed that he sent in January 2011, before his troubles with church officials began.
     In the email, Torralva asked Peloquin’s permission to use an obscured image of a man and woman in bed for a Powerpoint presentation along with the caption: “Ignite Your Marriage at Brighton Park. Mattress Not Included. Sponsored by the South Texas Children’s Ministries.”
     Torralva said he sent the email to Peloquin “in jest” because the church was having meetings for young married couples at the time.
     Steve Dalton, a church member, stated in a letter attached to Torralva’s complaint that he had attended a 2011 meeting at Burger King called by congregant Grady Jackson.
     Jackson’s adult daughter, Jill Jackson, allegedly denounced the photo as pornography at the meeting, and Lenhardt called for Torralva’s resignation.
     The appellate court noted that it could not determine whether the man and woman in the photo were fully clothed, as Torralva stated.
     Torralva said the church voted not to remove him as assistant pastor, so Peloquin resigned instead in early 2012.
     The defendants stated that they had not discussed Torralva with anyone who was not a church member, and asked that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine stripped the court of jurisdiction to hear the case.
     A Nueces County judge agreed, and the Corpus Christi-based 13th District of Texas for the Court of Appeals affirmed on April 18.
     “There was no evidence adduced that Torralva’s reputation was harmed outside of the church community, nor was there evidence that appellees took any action outside the context of their deliberations regarding Torralva’s fitness for service as an associate pastor with the church,” Justice Dori Garza wrote for a three-judge panel.
     “Trial on Torralva’s claims would require an analysis of ‘church discipline, ecclesiastical government or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required,'” Garza added.

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