Thomas Jefferson described a “wall of separation” between Church and State. The courts still give a large place to this wall.
The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled on a case in which a plaintiff asked them to pierce that wall, or at least cross it. Ryan Koster sued the Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC) and three of its pastors, alleging, among other things, breach of fiduciary duty, invasion of privacy and defamation. The court finally ruled in favor of the church, granting their request for summary judgment.
Koster was a former member of HBC and met his wife in the congregation. He and his wife were involved in a number of “community council” groups through the church, where members of the congregation met to study the scriptures and discuss issues they might encounter in their marriage. and their families. Pastor Garth Glenn was present in many groups with Koster and his wife.
In April 2015, Koster’s wife called Pastor Glenn. She told him that her three-year-old daughter had come to see her and told him that Koster had touched her under her underwear. Koster’s wife also requested a temporary protective order against Koster, which was granted, and DHS and police investigated.
Glenn emailed April 29 to other pastors and directors at HBC. The email mentioned that Koster and his wife had been involved in remedial counseling through HBC for the past several years, and that “[u]Sadly, events happened yesterday that triggered the need for police and DHS involvement, “before explaining that Koster’s wife and children were safe, but things” were just coming off. reach their climax ”.
Four days later, Glenn sent a longer email to members of the HBC groups of which the Kosters were a part. The email referred to the allegations against Koster, his denials, the order of protection and the fact that Koster had overcome some difficulties in the HBC groups. Glenn sent a similar email to the staff at HBC.
From its investigation, DHS concluded that the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded. The investigation was reopened two more times, and each time DHS concluded the allegations were unfounded.
Two years later, Koster wore this costume. He argued that the church and pastors owed him a fiduciary duty and that they breached that duty by discussing the allegations with HBC staff and congregation. He also argued that Glenn’s emails implicitly or expressly stated that Koster had abused his children, and because those statements were false, they were libelous.
The court concluded that any fiduciary duty would be too closely tied to HBC’s religious teachings and practices and, therefore, the court should not interfere with. How a church chooses to “counsel and counsel its congregation is beyond the reach of government” under the First Amendment. The fiduciary duties of confidentiality that Pastor Glenn owed to Koster could not be isolated from the environment and practices of the church, and the Iowa court did not want to engage in the analysis of religious obligations.
In much the same way, the court also dismissed Koster’s libel claim, finding that a qualified privilege applies. If Glenn’s emails were sent only to members of the congregation, regarding the conduct of other members of the congregation, his statements would be protected by qualified privilege. The court found that even though the emails were sent to someone who was not an active member of the congregation, that person was so closely related to the congregation and its common interest that the qualified privilege exception s still applied.
Presented with a thorny religious issue, the Iowa court decided to stand firmly on one side of the Jefferson Wall. Rather than engage in an analysis of congregational duties or inter-congregational communications, the court drew a hard line, and probably for the best.
Jack Greiner is a Managing Partner of Graydon Law Firm in Cincinnati. He represents Enquirer Media in First Amendment and media issues; He can be contacted at [email protected].