A state Court of Appeal reversed a $1.26-million defamation verdict against the Worldwide Church of God Wednesday, ruling that a minister’s comments explaining church doctrine are protected from libel suits by the First Amendment.
In ordering a new trial, the 2nd District Court of Appeal held that the Constitution’s “free exercise” of religion clause took precedence over the state’s interest in protecting citizens’ reputations by means of libel and slander laws.
The case involved comments by Roderick C. Meredith to a 1979 convention of 1,000 ministers and their wives in Tucson and a subsequent pastoral newsletter to 500 ministers about the church’s policy on divorce. He used the divorce of Leona McNair from Ambassador College Deputy Chancellor Raymond McNair as an example of divorce justified by the church as “desertion by an unconverted mate.”
Although Leona McNair had been a faithful church member, Meredith said that she “had left the church and was virtually cursing (her husband) . . ., spitting literally in people’s faces and as hateful as a human being could be.”
Meredith also described the Pasadena woman as “one of the major enemies of God’s church.”
Leona McNair sued, alleging that she had been defamed.
With the concurrence of Justices Robert Feinerman and Herbert L. Ashby, retired Justice James H. Hastings (sitting by special appointment) wrote in the 28-page opinion: “Our accommodation of the competing interests of our society--one protecting reputation, the other, the free exercise of religion--requires that we hold that in order for a plaintiff to recover damages for defamatory remarks made during the course of a doctrinal explanation by a duly authorized minister, he/she must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defamation was made with constitutional malice, that is with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The Pasadena Superior Court jury which granted Leona McNair $260,000 compensatory damages and $1 million punitive damages in 1984 had no instruction about deciding constitutional malice so could not determine whether evidence supported a verdict for the plaintiff, the justices said.
“I am shocked, surprised and disappointed,” said Antony Stuart, attorney for Leona McNair, when he was informed of the appellate decision. “We will definitely appeal to the (state) Supreme Court.”