Who Would Jesus Sue?

by Sean Carter lawpsided@msn.com

One of the fundamental tenets of our system of government is the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, the dividing line between the two is often as fuzzy as the leftovers in my college dorm room refrigerator.

The truth of the matter is that it's impossible to completely separate religious interests from secular interests. Sooner or later, the two will meet. And unfortunately, in most cases, the secular will overrun the religious as if the secular interest were Rodney King driving an SUV.

Take, for instance, the religious command to "turn the other cheek." This seemingly simple instruction is at odds with the reality of our legal system, in which every personal slight is a ground for a multi-billion dollar lawsuit. As a result, even devout Christians have started playing the American personal injury lottery.

In fact, just recently, the Iowa Supreme Court heard an appeal in a defamation lawsuit brought by an Iowa woman against her church. In this lawsuit, Jane Kliebenstein, a member of the Shell Rock Methodist Church, claims that the Rev. Jerrold Swinton defamed her when he wrote a letter to the congregation stating that "the spirit of Satan" was at work in the church.

Interestingly, in this letter, Swinton did not specifically mention Kliebenstein. In fact, the letter wasn't targeted towards anyone in particular. Swinton was simply pleading for the parishioners to end their feud about the church's pastor. In his letter, he stated, "Folks, when is enough, enough? When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tearing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you?" Or, in other words, Swinton was simply asking, "Can't we all just get along?"

However, Kliebenstein took the letter personally. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband filed a defamation lawsuit against Swinton and the church seeking unspecified damages (i.e., a boat load of cash).

Defamation is the act of making a derogatory statement about someone that negatively impacts their reputation. Obviously, stating that someone is "the spirit of Satan" can impact someone's reputation, unless they are a used car salesman, politician or a television executive.

In any event, assuming that the statement was derogatory, this isn't enough to make it defamatory. The statement must also be directed at a particular person or a small group of people. For instance, if I were to state that all French people are rude, arrogant and smelly, this isn't defamation; it's called "telling the truth."

Therefore, in this case, Swinton is only guilty of defamation if his letter was directed at Kliebenstein personally. However, just because Swinton didn't name Kliebenstein in the letter, it doesn't mean that he didn't refer to her indirectly. In some cases, innuendo is enough to constitute defamation.

For instance, let's suppose you say the following to your neighbor: "Hey, Jim, did you hear what happened to the Peterson's dog? Well, let me just put it this way . I wouldn't let your dog roam over into the Chin's yard, unless you want Rover to end up in the moo goo gai pan."

In this case, you are guilty of defamation (and gross stupidity). Even though, you never explicitly state that the Chins ate the Peterson's dog, you certainly implied it. Therefore, in the Iowa case, Swinton may be liable for defamation if his letter to the congregation read like this: "The spirit of Satan is alive and well in this church and it drives a green Lexus and wears way too much make-up."

If this is the case, then Swinton has defamed Kliebenstein unless he can prove that his statements are true. After all, if the horns fit, you must acquit.

The fact that Kliebenstein sued her church in the first place seems to indicate that she isn't the nicest person in the world. However, in a legal sense, this probably doesn't make her "the spirit of Satan."

Of course, the real question is what has happened to our society? Have we become so sensitive that we can't even accept correction from our clergy? After all, if your pastor says that someone in the congregation is "the spirit of Satan" and everyone turns around and looks at you, then perhaps the first step isn't to call your lawyer.

A better course of action is to change your ways and restore your reputation within the church. After all, I thought that the key phrase for us Christians is "What would Jesus do?" not "Who would Jesus sue?"

Sean Carter is a lawyer, public speaker, and the author of "If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit? - Your Humorous Guide to the Law". He can be reached at www.lawpsided.com