Monday, June 04, 2018

Iowa Supreme Court Dismisses Negligence, But Not Negligent Supervision, Claims Against Church Elders

In Bandstra v. Covenant Reformed Church, (IA Sup. Ct., filed 6/1/2018), the Iowas Supreme Court held that the 1st Amendment and parallel state constitutional provisions bar negligence claims against elders of the church for their response to disclosure that the church's pastor was having sexual relations with several women he was counseling.  The court said in part:
Following [the pastor's] resignation, the elders sought to help the congregation move forward and heal. The means by which they chose to counsel and advise the congregation is outside the purview of the government. Plaintiffs argue “a reasonable church would seek assistance for parishioners and not label victims ‘adulteresses.’ ” Yet, that is precisely the type of determination that the Religion Clauses prohibit.... A court cannot dictate what teachings and services a church offers its parishioners. Nor can we disapprove of the elders deciding, pursuant to their duty as religious authorities, that the women would be best healed by simply confessing their “sins.”
However the court allowed one of the plaintiffs to move ahead with a negligent supervision claim, holding:
While the decision whether to invite certain speakers, or use certain rhetoric, is protected religious decision-making, reasonable supervision of an employee is a principle of tort law that applies neutrally to all employers. Further, the Church confirmed during oral argument that the Church’s supervision, or lack thereof, was not grounded in any religious doctrine or teachings.
It also held that the trial court properly dismissed a number of defamation claims. [Thanks to Tom Rutledge for the lead.]