Mar 7, 2013

Judge: pastor not protected from public criticism, accusations

Pastors are public figures, and aren't completely protected from former members' online criticism and accusations, according to a California judge.

Bob Grenier, the pastor of a Calvary Chapel church in central California, is suing his step-son, Alex Grenier, for defamation. The pastor claims he is being attacked and his reputation is being ruined by his step-son's blog and internet activities, activities that Alex Grenier says are designed to call attention to allegations of a long history of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and "ecclesiastical corruption."

According to the lawsuit, "Alex continues to this day to conduct a cyber-bully hate campaign by scouring the internet continuously, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, for the purpose of generating negative posts about his Parents." The suit claims the younger Grenier uses as many as nine websites "aimed at ruining credibility of Parents," regularly accusing the elder Grenier of child molestation and stealing from the church.

Two of the pastor's other sons -- adopted and biological -- have confirmed Alex Grenier's accounts of abuse.

Bob Grenier of course denies these allegations, but the primary case that's being made in the California court is that such allegations should not even be allowed. Similar to the argument that Sovereign Grace Ministries' lawyers are making in a Maryland court, the point is to protect internal affairs from outside scrutiny. In this week's preliminary ruling, however, a California judge rejected the idea that Bob Grenier's purportedly private affairs were really private and should be protected as private.

The judge ruled that the pastor is a "limited purpose public figure," and as such subject to a fair amount of public criticism.

Statements about public figures are only defamatory if they false statements, damaging statements, and published with "reckless disregard for the truth."This means that Bob Grenier does not just have to prove that his step-son's online statements were wrong and hurtful, but that Alex knowingly published false information intending to harm his step-father. According to the preliminary decision, the pastor is a public figure, and the bar is raised for claims of defamation:
Plaintiff, as pastor of Calvary Chapel Visalia, has placed himself in the public eye sufficiently to be considered a Limited Purpose Public Figure. Defendants have submitted evidence showing that Plaintiff has a Web site promoting his church and has video feeds of church services available through the Web site. Additionally, Plaintiff has published and distributed a book about his activities as a church leader, and has been active in various community events such as the mayor’s annual prayer breakfast and as a volunteer chaplain with the local police department. Plaintiff has also been active in producing and promoting regional church activities. In these public activities, Plaintiff claims to adhere to, teach, counsel, and to promote high standards of Christian morality and the teachings of the Bible, topics of substantial public interest. The evidence submitted supports Defendants’ claims that Plaintiff sought to have not only church members but others in the community see him as a church leader.
Such court decisions are good news for the growing number of online "survivor" communities that share and bring attention to allegations of "spiritual abuse." It's bad news for the many churches that want to squelch such public criticism of how they counsel members.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments about "reckless disregard for the truth" in the Grenier vs. Grenier case in April.