The Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District recently affirmed a jury verdict in excess of a quarter million dollars against the senior pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, Erwin Lutzer. Lutzer was accused of sending letters to leaders of the Hope Church regarding the alleged behavior of its pastor, Richard Duncan. The letters contained information provided to the Moody Church by people who knew Duncan. In sum, the letters stated that Duncan had an improper relationship with a single, divorced woman who was not his wife, that he had filed for divorce, that he misused alcohol, that he misused personal funds, and that he used deceitful means to access the bank accounts of the Hope Church. Duncan testified that as a result of the letters sent by Lutzer, the membership of the Hope Church diminished, the church could no longer employ Duncan, and Duncan was unable to find other employment. A jury found Lutzer liable to Duncan for “false light invasion of privacy” for sending the letters and entered a money judgment against him in the amount of $276,306.
Before he was pastor of the Hope Church, Duncan was an assistant pastor at the Moody Church. In fact, the Moody Church had licensed and ordained Duncan as a minister. The letters Lutzer sent to the Hope Church explained the Moody Church’s decision to rescind Duncan’s lisencing and ordination as a result his alleged behavior. Therefore, Lutzer argued to the Court that his action (sending the letters) was protected by the ecclesiastical abstension doctrine, which provides that civil courts may not determine the correctness of interpretations of religious text or decisions relating to the governance of a religious organization. The Appellate Court found the ecclesiastical abstension doctrine did not apply. The Court explained that by sending the letters to persons outside the Moody Church, Lutzer’s action was not related to the governance of the Moody Church (despite the fact that the letters related to the Moody Church’s decision to rescind Duncan’s licenscing and ordination). The Appellate Court also found that sending the letters did not relate to the interpretation of religious text (despite the fact that the statements in the letters regarding Duncan’s behavior were followed by references to supporting text from the Bible. For example, one of the letters stated: “Your misuse of alcohol violates the Biblical admonition that an elder be ‘temperate, self-controlled.’”)
The Appellate Court pointed out that the letters contained at least one false statement – that Duncan had filed for a divorce, when in fact his wife had filed to divorce him. The Court also pointed out that some of the statements in the letters were made “without any investigation”, such as whether Duncan had misused alcohol and personal funds. Therefore, even if Lutzer had no knowledge that any of the statements in the letters were false, the Court ruled that the jury could have properly found Lutzer made the statements with reckless disregard for their falseness. Therefore, the Court affirmed the jury’s verdict against Lutzer.
To view the Court’s full opinion, click here: Duncan v. Peterson and the Moody Church
It is critical for the leader of any organization to know when it is legal to disseminate private information. Even a well-intentioned letter may subject the sender to liability for invasion of privacy. The lawyers at DeBlasio & Gower LLC are experienced in representing corporations and religious organizations and can provide the advice that your company needs to ensure compliance with privacy laws.
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