The First Amendment right to freely hire and fire religious leaders does not completely insulate religious organizations from being sued for defamation by pastors, rabbis, and other members of leadership.
A Florida case involving a pastor who had preached for 45 years evidences the difference one court drew between the constitutionally protected decision of who is fit to lead a religious organization, and the unprotected neutral issue of whether a religious leader has been defamed.
In the lawsuit, two congregants stated the pastor had stolen money from the church to purchase a vehicle. The pastor sued the congregants for slander. When the case came up on appeal, the court found that based on the face of the complaint, the slander action did not concern excessive entanglement in an internal church matter, and did not concern the interpretation of religious doctrine. The slander claim was found to concern “a neutral principal of tort law,” and therefore the pastor was permitted to continue with his action for slander against the congregants.
What is significant about that court’s logic is that although the church could have terminated the pastor and been protected under the First Amendment from a lawsuit for wrongful termination, the pastor could still proceed with a lawsuit against the persons who made the statement. Therefore, religious organizations who have concerns with the actions of their religious leaders should consult with legal counsel on how best to address those concerns so as to maximize constitutional protections, while avoiding possible civil liabilities, such as an action for slander.