Can you be sued for criticizing the church?

Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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This story comes from outside the Catholic sphere, but it caught my attention as something that just as easily could have taken place in the Catholic Church.

The pastor of Beaverton Grace Bible Church in Beaverton, Oregon is suing a former member of his congregation for defamation. Julie Anne Smith, a mother of seven, is being hit with a $500,000 lawsuit because she started a blog that is critical of her former church.

Smith claims that she and her family were shunned by the community for leaving the church, a practice that sometimes occurs in Protestant communities (including Mark Driscoll's well known Mars Hill Church, among others). Smith claims she started the blog for "survivors" of this sort of spiritual abuse, sort of an online support community for others who had experienced the same torment that she and her family endured.

“All we did was asked questions," Smith said in a local TV interview. "We just raised concerns. There’s no sin in that.”

Her former pastor disagrees, and now Smith is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that she has a First Amendment right to freely speak about her feelings on the church and how she was treated.

We may not formally shun people in the Catholic Church, but there sure is plenty of name calling, finger pointing, and heavy criticizing that goes on, especially in the blogosphere. You can easily find plenty of blogs or commentaries criticizing or questioning the church, its leaders, or average lay Catholics for a variety of reasons. And thankfully, as far as I know, no one has been sued for it yet.

There's a lot to like and dislike about the internet, but it certainly does give people a forum to speak freely about an issue and to engage in discussion with others who may share or oppose their views. For people of faith, it gives us a chance to discuss the way we understand our church, its teachings, and the role it plays in our lives. Sometimes it gives us a way to blow of steam or to connect with others who struggle with the same things that trouble us.

It sounds as if Smith found healing through her blog, and hopefully she's helped others who faced similar issues in their churches. That's something we should encourage, even if we don't always agree with the writer's criticism.