The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to accept review of a case that could make a lasting mark on the First Amendment and the free exercise of religion.
Justices are considering a petition for review from the defendants in Tubra v. Cooke, a controversial recent decision by the Oregon Court of Appeals. If accepted for review, this matter of first impression involving the U.S. Constitution's free exercise of religion clause could settle a wide array of inconsistent lower court decisions, according to attorneys for one of the defendants, The Foursquare Church, a worldwide denomination headquartered in Los Angeles.
In Tubra, the Oregon court held that the First Amendment did not preclude a pastor's defamation claims against the Foursquare Church, his former employer, and two of its other pastors. The claims are based on statements the other Church pastors made solely within the Church and only to other Church members about the reasons the plaintiff, Tim Tubra, was relieved of his position as a Church pastor in Vernonia, Oregon. Specifically, the Church concluded that plaintiff misappropriated Church money and was "sowing discord" within the Church. The plaintiff alleged that he was terminated because of these false accusations, and that he was damaged "spiritually." An Oregon jury awarded him $355,000 in damages, but the trial court later set aside the verdict, holding that the First Amendment barred his claims. The Oregon Court of Appeals, however, reversed the trial court and reinstated the jury verdict.
"The Roberts court has focused on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and the separation of church and state," said John Kaempf, attorney for the Foursquare Church. "Now the justices can address the free exercise clause in the context of a civil claim by a pastor against his own church that involves a church's right to discipline its clergy without interference by the courts." The Oregon Court of Appeals in the Tubra decision recognized that no U.S. Supreme Court case "specifically addresses the applicability of First Amendment protections to churches and other religious groups defending against allegations of defamation by a church pastor," and that other state courts have issued conflicting opinions on this issue of federal law. Moreover, legal scholars describe the Tubra opinion as "pushing the envelope," and noted that its holding invites review by the high Court so this conflict among the lower courts can be resolved.
Kaempf also noted that the briefing related to the petition for review in the Tubra case was completed on February 7, and a decision on whether the Court will accept the case should come soon.
"This case raises very important issues concerning the First Amendment right of churches to discipline their own clergy and speak solely to their own members without their actions being subject to approval by secular courts," Kaempf said. "Clergy defamation claims against churches and related tort claims are increasing nationwide, and the majority of lower courts across the U.S. disagree with the Tubra decision. A church's federal constitutional protections should not vary depending on the state where a lawsuit is filed. This case presents the Court with the opportunity to clarify this important constitutional issue and to uphold the right of churches to manage their internal affairs without courts getting involved."
Foursquare Church of Los Angeles
Brooksby Kaempf PC, a civil litigation firm based in Portland, Oregon that defends religious organizations nationwide
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