The Oregonian, February 8, 2010
Oregon Appeals Court backs former Vernonia pastor in First Amendment case, upholds $355,000 judgment in defamation suit
By Andrew Scoggin
A church can’t use the First Amendment as a defense against a defamation lawsuit if church officials accuse a former pastor of being a thief in front of the congregation, according to a game-changing ruling from the Oregon Court of Appeals.
The appeals court upheld a $355,000 jury award to Tim Tubra, who was fired as interim pastor of the Vernonia Foursquare Church in 2004 after church officials accused him of “misappropriation of church funds.” Tubra discovered later that church officials had made the accusation public in a letter read aloud to the congregation after he left his position. He was never charged with a crime.
A Multnomah County jury sided with the former pastor but the trial judge threw the verdict out, ruling that the circuit court didn’t have jurisdiction because of First Amendment issues.
However, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the defaming statements were not religious in nature, so they didn’t qualify for protection under the First Amendment.
In the opinion, written by appellate Judge Rex Armstrong, accusing a pastor of theft is no more or less a religious matter “than is a defamatory statement accusing a pastor of child molestation.”
Armstrong described the specific circumstances of the case as a first in the United States.
The defense plans on appealing the decision to Oregon’s Supreme Court, said defense attorney John T. Kaempf. Because the case was argued in the appeals court Aug. 8, 2008, he said the length of time between that and this decision “confirms that this is a very important issue of First Amendment constitutional law.”
“The First Amendment protects a church’s right to speak to church members about a church pastor’s conduct without interference by secular courts,” Kaempf said in an e-mail. “Until the Oregon Court of Appeals’ decision (Jan. 27), this was the holding of every court in the country addressing similar facts.”
Professor Steven K. Green from Willamette University’s College of Law said historically there has been a “zone of protection” surrounding what happens in a church, but that this perception is changing dramatically.
“The decision puts Oregon on the vanguard in this area,” said Green, who is the director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy at the school. “Traditionally, employment disputes internal to a church have been off limits to courts because of the difficulty of determining what is theological.”
President and founder of conservative legal organization The Rutherford Institute, attorney John W. Whitehead, said the key to a court’s involvement in church matters is whether the issue at hand is ecclesiastical in nature. He said he had not seen a case quite like this.
“They’re not above the law, and they shouldn’t argue that they are,” said Whitehead, whose group deals in large part with religious issues.
Green said above all, the ruling, which he said would probably be affirmed if appealed to Oregon’s Supreme Court, could force churches to make some changes.
“The most noteworthy thing is it will change the way some churches do their business,” he said. “They will have to be more careful about criticizing each other in their own church. Many of things within religious bodies are done quite informally.”
The attorney for the Foursquare Church said no charges were filed against the former pastor because officials wanted to resolve the issue within the church community.
What happened in Vernonia came down to an agreement between Tubra and church elders before he took the interim job after being laid off as an associate pastor for the Columbia City Foursquare Church.
According to the court file, after Tubra was laid off because of economic reasons from his position as associate pastor at Columbia City Foursquare Church in September 2003, senior pastor John Michael Cooke offered him a position at a church in Vernonia.
Tubra was reluctant to take the job because of the low pay, according to the document, but Cooke and Ron Swor , another supervisor, offered him $1,100 a month for the first three months in addition to the normal $1,500 salary. He agreed to take the position November 2003 on an interim basis.
In April 2004, Tubra withdrew $3,000 from the Vernonia church’s account and explained to the church council that it had been earmarked for him as a gift. However, Cooke and Swor accused Tubra of a “misappropriation of church funds” and fired him.
In a letter written by Cooke and Swor and read aloud to the congregation, the two said that “there has been, to some extent, a financial misappropriation by former pastor (Tubra),” among other things.
Tubra did not know about the letter until a church member confronted him about it in the member’s home, and a Columbia City church member asked him about it in a grocery store.
When Tubra asked for the letter from church officials, one official said in an e-mail to another’s secretary that Tubra “has already demonstrated a willingness to lie and steal.”
After more than 20 years in the ministry, Tubra found himself unable to find steady work as a pastor. He had to sell his house and move into a fifth-wheel trailer with his wife, according to court documents. Tubra filed a defamation suit in September 2005 against The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
His attorney, Christopher G. Lundberg, said his client was heartened by the appeals court decision upholding the jury’s judgement.
“Mr. Tubra’s rights have been vindicated again,” said his attorney Christopher G. Lundberg. “This is big and very meaningful to him.”
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