ST. PAUL - Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling in LaVonne Pfeil and the late Henry Pfeil v. St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church and Pastors Thomas Braun and Joe Behnke. Counsel for both parties argued their positions before six justices.
In the original 2013 case, Pfeil alleged on behalf of herself and her late husband that the couple’s reputation had been defamed through a number of alleged statements made during the church’s excommunication process.
The statements were distributed in a document during a Sept. 25, 2011, meeting of the church as well as on a ballot for the excommunication of the Pfeils and of Burdell and Jolene Kuhl. Statements against the Pfeils were also made in March 2012 during a synod panel hearing.
The alleged statements made by the former pastors allege that the Pfeils were “actively involved in slander, gossip, and speaking against” both pastors and Pastor Braun’s wife, Colleen Braun, according to court documents. In essence, the case argued that by accusing the Pfeils of defaming the clergy and the church, the clergy and the church were defaming the Pfeils.
In a judgment dated March 27, 2014, the defendants’ motion to dismiss all claims by LaVonne Pfeil due to the court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction was granted. Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure 12,08(c) states “whenever it appeals by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court shall dismiss the action.”
The ruling, stemming from the district court’s interpretation of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, barred the court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction. The doctrine stems from religious protections in both the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The claims were therefore dismissed with prejudice, meaning they could not be raised again in district court.
In 2014, the case made its way to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling on Jan. 1, 2015, calling Judge Gordon Moore’s ruling a “well-reasoned order.” The Court of Appeals affirmed Moore’s ruling, citing:
“Under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction if the disputed topic is strictly and purely ecclesiastical in its character, (a) matter over which the civil courts exercise no jurisdiction, (a) matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.”
In his opening remarks last week, Zorislav Leyderman, attorney for the plaintiffs, identified that the suit is not asking for the court to rule over the matters of the church but rather the alleged defamatory statements made in the proceedings.
“We’re not here to challenge the excommunication of Mrs. Pfeil and her husband. This is not what this case is about. We’re not here to ask the court if that was appropriate,” Leyderman said to the justices.
“The second issue I wanted to bring up really quick is the fact that Mrs. Pfeil and her husband were no longer members of this church when the defamatory statements were made,” Leyderman began.
“And the reason why this point is important is because if the court affirms the court of appeal and district court (rulings), the effect that it is going to have is to allow churches, and their clergy or leadership within the church, to essentially defame the public at large, and there is no remedy for anything that is said in these church meetings,” Leyderman stated.
Leyderman was asked how to separate the accusations made by the church against the Pfeils from a religious setting to a secular one. It was noted that the six statements made on the ballot provided to church members were followed with biblical citations. Leyderman conceded that moving forward, those statements may not be able to be evaluated by a civil court.
However, Leyderman noted that statements made about alleged breaches of confidentiality and perpetuated false information by the plaintiffs could be viewed as secular defamation.
William Davidson, attorney for the defendants, encouraged the court to uphold the lower court rulings and give the defense an “affirmance of the recognition that a secular court, a civil court, lacks jurisdiction over internal church discipline disputes.”
Davidson argued that regardless of what type of statement is made by members of the clergy against members or vice versa in the course of a church proceeding should exempt from ruling by a civil court under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea questioned the legal basis for his argument: “... Our court has been, as our recent jurisprudence I think reflects, reluctant to extend absolute immunity, absolute privilege, in the defamation context. We’ve had some recent cases about that. And in effect, that’s what you’re asking for here, because you’re saying, ‘The qualified privilege isn’t good enough, we need an absolute privilege.’
“You cannot come inside what happens in the internal workings of a church and sue for defamation based on something that happens inside the internal workings of the church. Why? Why would we depart from our reluctance to extend absolute privilege? Because this is a church and it’s different, is I guess what you are going to say,” Gildea questioned.
“It is fundamentally different,” Davidson replied. “Society long ago made the decision to grant religious freedom and liberty to churches both under the First Amendment (of the U.S. Constitution) and this state itself, both in the preamble of the constitution and the in more detail in Article 1, Section 16, of the Freedom of Conscious Clause of this constitution. Society has decided that certain things are so fundamentally important to society that we will not allow infringement upon, or interference with, the free exercise and practice of religion. So that makes it different than an ordinary run-of-the-mill defamation case.”
In his rebuttal, Leyderman outlined why this case is important on a larger scale than just the scope of the particular claims in the matter.
“Your Honors, I want to address the issues that counsel brought up multiple times that we’re only here to deal with the facts of this case and that rather than thinking about various hypotheticals and what could happen elsewhere, we should only look at what happened here and not try to predict what’ll happen elsewhere,” Leyderman said. “... There haven’t been any decisions by this court to resolve a dispute like this. This court’s opinion, whatever it may be that’ll be issued, will be for years applied by district courts and other individuals who have similar problems maybe in similar context and maybe in different context. If this court affirms and doesn’t do anything ... all of the hypotheticals that Your Honors have brought up will actually come true at some point.
“No. 1, there will be no protection for citizens, members of the church or non-members of the church, from anything that may be said about them in some sort of a formal religious proceeding,” Leyderman continued. “No. 2, religious leaders will feel that they can now do what perhaps happened in this case. They will feel no limitations on their actions, and they will feel there is nothing out there to discourage them for defaming people through whatever they may say in church proceedings.
“There has been a lot of discussions about the fact that some sort of rule that we’re asking for would discourage religion. But there is no case law out there that says that the right to religious freedom trumps everything and everywhere. Once again, all we are asking for is for balance. We’re not asking for the court to decide that you can sue for every single statement that is made. We simply ask for the court to look for some kind of balance so that what happened here - what allegedly happened in this case - doesn’t go unchecked,” Leyderman concluded.
The Supreme Court will take the matter under advisement and issue an opinion at a future date.