Bandstra, et al. v. Covenant Reformed Church, No. 16-1078. Supreme Court of Iowa, June 1, 2018.
Covenant Reformed Church of Pella, Iowa, is governed by a professed religious pastor and lay elders who serve in both administrative and pastoral capacities. The pastor is subject to the supervision of the board of elders, who monitor the doctrinal quality of preaching, who meet with the pastor to discuss matters needing attention, and who consult with members of the congregation concerning satisfaction with the pastor.
More than a decade ago, Covenant Reformed Church installed talented homilist Patrick Edouard as pastor. Edouard resigned immediately after the elders received reports that he had engaged in sexual relations with two congregants during the course of counseling.
The church leadership responded to the resignation by a letter to congregants noting that Edouard’s sin had compelled the acceptance of his resignation. The letter provided no details about his conduct.
The elders then summoned the women involved with Edouard, urging and receiving confessions, and offering forgiveness.
The elders then wrote to the congregation to stress that Christian prudence would caution against naming or discussing the persons involved in the departure of the pastor, and emphasizing the congregation’s wish that these persons remain among them.
Following intervention by a parishioner concerned that the elders had not used current social theory nomenclature in discussing the women by referring to sin and adultery rather than victim hood. The elders conferred and determined that in the absence of other evidence, Biblical terminology was apt. The elders were of the view that both the minister and the congregants bore responsibility, that repentance was desirable, and that the matter was neither one of “clergy sexual abuse” or “grooming.” The elders sought but did not received endorsement from an expert on clergy sexual abuse.
The women involved with the minister — who was convicted by a jury of sexual exploitation — sued the minister and the church, alleging negligence in failing to provide clergy sexual abuse experts to work with the congregation, infliction of harm in blaming the women for their involvement, negligent supervision of the pastor, and defamation.
The Supreme Court of Iowa has opined that the elders’ characterization of the pastor’s and the women’s conduct as adulterous lies squarely within the church’s religious province: interference by a secular civil court would offend the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment limit on civil judicial intervention does not attach, however, to the supervision of the pastor, an administrative task not involving theological concerns. Similarly, the court observed that clergy communications of secular purpose — supervision, governance, and administration — are not privileged.
It is notable that the court adopted an expansive view of the qualified immunity attaching to clergy and congregational communications, extending its protections to the lay church elders.
The court reviewed several official communications, concluding many were not actionable as defamation in the absence of evidence of abuse, malice, or conduct beyond the group’s purpose. Other communications were non-actionable opinion.
Documents not before the court or contested documents ought to be examined in view of these principles on remand.
Some may be comforted and others vexed by the state supreme court’s recognition of its constitutional constraints. The court was clear that while the First Amendment forbids judicial interference in ecclesial matters, that is not the case with judicial examination of a church’s secular functions or where clerical privileges may be lost through misuse. What is notable is that in this case, the very wrong alleged is the use of Biblical language with arguably injurious secular connotations. In an increasingly secular society, in which reputation is easily lost and seldom fully redeemed, it is not likely that the Iowa court’s view, however sound it may be, will end exploration of the legal admixture of the sacred and the profane.