Illinois Appellate Court Finds that First Amendment Bars Priest’s Defamation Case

In Stepek v. Doe, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause barred the defamation claim of a Catholic priest against two brothers who charged that he abused them 25 years earlier.  The court adopted the rationale of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, where the court found that “The First Amendment’s protection of internal religious disciplinary proceedings would be meaningless if a parishioner’s accusation that was used to initiate those proceedings could be tested in a civil court.”  Because the brothers’ accusations arose in the course of a church disciplinary decision, the court found that exercising subject matter jurisdiction would “require the secular court to involve itself in the regulation of ecclesiastical activity.”  Accordingly, the court held that the First Amendment barred the trial court from exercising jurisdiction.

Stepek presents a departure from prior Illinois law where the First Amendment inquiry focused upon whether a controversy involving a church could be determined without reference to ecclesiastical doctrine or church law.  Prior cases involving alleged improper sexual activity by clergy were held not to implicate the First Amendment because the matters were determined by application of neutral principles of law.  Biven v. Wright (allegations of improper sexual conduct in the course of religious counseling).  Moreover, unlike the Hiles case relied upon by the court, Stepek involved allegations of criminal conduct, over which secular courts unquestionably have an interest.  In addition, in Stepek, the Church’s own written procedures and policies required the reporting of accusations of the abuse of minors by clergy to secular prosecuting and investigative authorities.  Thus, in Stepek, it was argued that determination of the defamation claim would not involve interpretation of church doctrine or review of church discipline.  The court’s focus upon the forum in which the statements were made rather than whether the truth or falsity of the statements at issue can be determined without interpreting religious criteria will make it harder for defamation plaintiffs to proceed where their claims are based, in part, on statements made in a religious forum.

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