Religious organizations can be sued for defaming a congregant. For example, if a religious leader publically speaks negatively about a member, and if what is addressed turns out to be false, that leader and his employer are exposed to a lawsuit for defamation. Despite this traditional application of defamation law, in Florida, religious organizations are permitted to freely discuss among internal leadership matters that might otherwise result in a defamation lawsuit.
To prevail in a lawsuit for defamation, the defendant must have made the statement to a third person. In Florida, a corporation’s board of directors is considered corporate management, such that the acts of a corporation’s board of directors are the acts of the corporation itself. Therefore, as recognized by a recent Florida appellate court, when the party “hearing or seeing the purported defamation is so closely connected with the potential…defendant that they merge into a single entity…there is no publication to a ‘third person’ necessary to the cause of action.”
What this means for a religious organization is that negative discussions with the organization’s board about another member of the congregation, though offensive to that member, are probably not subject to a lawsuit for defamation. By keeping the conversation exclusively within the organization’s leadership, the religious organization has not taken the critical step of publishing the discussions to a third party.