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Preacher’s Comments About Member Protected

(CN) - A preacher did not defame a church member by publicly telling him to stop harassing and threatening the congregation, the Tennessee Appeals Court ruled.

Robert Johnson attended Fellowship Baptist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., for 70 years, including 30 as a trustee.

That ended when the Rev. Shad Carnes read a letter from the church's attorney to the congregation at Sunday morning service. The letter began:

"I have been retained on behalf of Fellowship Church to demand that you immediately cease abusive and threatening telephone calls, offensive language, threats of physical harm and other inappropriate contact to its members and board."

Though Carnes did not mention Johnson's name, Johnson sued for defamation, claiming everyone knew it was addressed to him.

The trial court ruled that Carnes' comments were protected by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, and Judge Cottrell of the Nashville-based appeals court agreed.

"The church's communication of the fact and reason for excommunication are protected from judicial inquiry and review," the judge wrote.

"Announcing an expulsion or disfellowship to the members of the church is part of the disciplinary proceedings, particularly where instruction to church members regarding the expelled party is part of the church's belief and practice," Cottrell added.

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