CARGILL V. GREATER SALEM BAPTIST CHURCH
TORTS: Defamation (actionable statements); Church privilege
DATE RENDERED: 7/14/2006
In this appeal from the Jefferson Circuit Court, the COA affirmed the granting the Appellee church’s motion for summary judgment but Cargill and Arthur contend that the circuit court incorrectly determined that the the church’s senior pastor and deacon’s oral and written statements were not actionable as defamatory.
Noting there is minimal Kentucky case law on this issue, this Commonwealth as well as the majority of other jurisdictions, recognizes that civil courts should not interfere with internal church matters as the internal organization, and church discipline are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law, and civil courts generally have no role in deciding such ecclesiastical questions. The qualified privilege afforded to defamatory statements made in the course of church related matters is also recognized in this Commonwealth, and a member of a church “impliedly at least, if not expressly, covenants to conform to the rules of the church, to submit to its authority and discipline.”
Because the oral and written statements are privileged communications, Cargill and Arthur must show that the privilege was abused – the statements were made with malice ( “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” )
Although the jury normally determines whether a privilege was abused, a motion for summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows no facts which would lead to the conclusion that the church acted with malice. SJ dismissing defamation claim affirmed.