In today’s Oregonian there was a story that at least bears noting. It told the story of a pastor (Tim Tubra) who had been fired from the Vernonia (OR) Foursquare Church back in 2003. The board of that church wrote a letter to the congregation stating that he was a thief.
Tubra sued, claiming defamation of character and recently, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the claim. (Tubra had also won at the lower level before a jury, but the judge at that level threw the case out after the jury ruled in favor of the pastor). The defendants [the church] have already said that they will take the case to the Oregon Supreme Court.
OK, so a law-case was in the news? So what? And other than the fact that it involves a church and a pastor, why are you taking time to write about it in your blog, Cal?
Calling the ruling “game changing”, the Oregonian stated:
"The First Amendment protects a church’s right to speak to church members about a church pastor’s conduct without interference by secular courts," [John T. Kaempf, the defense attorney] said in an e-mail. "Until the Oregon Court of Appeals’ decision, 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.
The precipitating event (at least as explained in the Oregonian) is that when Tubra was hired, the church did not have enough money to pay him a living wage. Therefore, the senior minister and another member of the board promised to pay Tubra $1,100 extra per month for the first three months in addition to his regular salary of $1,500. At the end of the four months employment at the church, Tubra withdrew $3,000 from the church’s bank account, claiming that he was taking the money that had been donated for this special extra salary or gift.
(As an aside, let me say, I have no idea how a minister, let alone an associate minister would even have the ability to withdraw $3,000 from the church’s bank account. It would appear that the proper checks & balances were not in place that would preclude such a thing from happening.)
The response of the senior minister and the board member was to fire Tubra and then read a letter to the congregation saying he had been fired because he was a thief. ("there has been, to some extent, a financial misappropriation by former pastor [Tubra].")
No charges were ever filed against Tubra.
Upon discovering the contents of the letter that had been read to the congregation, Tubra asked for a copy of the letter. In an e-mail exchange with a secretary who was asked to provide the letter, one official of the church told said that Tubra "has already demonstrated a willingness to lie and steal."
After being unable to find another place of ministry two years later, (even with 20 years of church ministry experience) Tubra filed a defamation suit against the International Church of the Foursquare in Sept 2005 and was awarded $355,000 by the jury.
The crux comes down (in my view) is whether or not church boards are able to act however they want regardless of the law? Is the board truly free to say whatever they want to their congregation, with no evidence to back it up except their word? No one has argued (to my knowledge) that Tubra was not promised the money. And if he withdrew it after already having been paid the money, then the church should have filed charges.
(In their defense, the Oregonian reports “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.”) Two years seems like more than adequate time, however, to show that one is indeed trying “to resolve the issue within the church community.”
It took the Oregon Court of Appeals almost 18 months after hearing the case to issue a judgment. They seem to recognize the precedent setting nature of such a judgment and the First Amendment issues involved:
- How far can the government step into the internal affairs of a congregation by stating that an issue is legal & not ecclesiastical in nature?
- How far can church leaders & church members go beyond the bounds of legal and moral actions and still claim that they are immune from legal ramifications.
Most of us appreciate the boundaries that the First Amendment established. (Although we may not appreciate the abuses that have been visited on the church by her opponents in the name of the First Amendment).
What makes it difficult (IMHO) is when church members and leaders do not behave by the own morality that they preach and therefore the state is obligated to step in. It besmirches the name of Christ and complicates life for the rest of us.
You can find the Oreogonian’s story on the ruling here.