Church autonomy doctrine does not bar defamation and breach of fiduciary duty claims

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Bilbrey v. Myers, (FL App., June 29, 2012), a Florida state appellate court reversed a trial court’s reliance on the church autonomy doctrine and permitted a former church member, Darrel Bilbrey, to proceed with his defamation and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the church’s pastor David Myers. Originally Myers sponsored Bilbrey to obtain a license to minister in the Pentecostal church.  Subsequently Myers came to believe that Bilbrey was gay and claimed that  Bilbrey’s upcoming marriage was a sham to hide his homosexuality. Myers made these charges of homosexuality during a meeting with Bilbrey and three others; in a sermon; and to Bilbrey’s pastor in Michigan after Bilbrey moved and sought to have his ministerial license transferred there.  The court held:

The First Amendment does not grant Myers, as pastor of FPC, carte blanche to defame church members and ex-members. If untrue, the statement that a person is a homosexual has long been recognized as potentially defamatory outside the context of any religious doctrine or practice. This claim can be adjudicated without implicating the First Amendment and was improperly dismissed on the basis of the church autonomy doctrine…. 

As to Bilbrey’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty—based on allegations that Myers had a fiduciary duty to Bilbrey because of the pastor/church member relationship and the internet filtration and accountability program [in which Myers was Bilbrey’s “accountability partner”]—the First Amendment does not necessarily bar such claims.

Plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy claims were dismissed.