church and court

On Suing Your Pastor

By Taiwo Abiodun-Oni

Is the altar so sacred that its mounters cannot be sued?

After a sabbatical of almost two years from the echoing chambers of worship, I, once again, found myself ensconced within the church’s embrace. Yet, as serenity intertwined with spiritual communion, my mind, ever the analyst, ruminated over the legal tendrils wrapped around some of the eloquent proclamations made by the erudite SAN preacher.

The pulpit, revered as a lighthouse of divine wisdom, has, on occasions, cast an eclipse of potential legal entanglements. Its sacred nature doesn’t enshroud it in an invincible cloak, immunizing it against the terrestrial laws of the realm.

As scriptures sagely declare, “Life and death lie in the tongue’s dominion.” But, what unfolds when the orations, instead of bestowing life, potentially inflict wounds? The legal ripples generated by such words might mirror their spiritual aftershocks, particularly when they traverse the realms of defamation and assault.

Defamation, as recognized in numerous legal terrains, emerges when false utterances tarnish an individual’s esteem. It’s not the loudness of such claims but their gravity. A precedent, the case of Ballard v. Moorhead (Minnesota, 1905), witnessed a parishioner invoking legal channels against a minister over defamatory insinuations made mid-sermon. The courts underlined that the sanctuary of the clergy doesn’t bestow an unchecked liberty from legal oversight.

Contrarily, assault, commonly perceived as a tangible act, can also cloak itself in verbiage. Words, when they kindle an imminent fear of harm, transcend mere articulations. The landmark case of Ireland v. United Kingdom (1978) recognized severe psychological duress as comparable to “inhuman or degrading treatment”, spotlighting the potency of verbal onslaughts.

The Ballet of Expression

The pulpit, indubitably, serves as a bastion of free expression. Yet, akin to Icarus soaring perilously close to the sun, those on the pulpit must tread with circumspection. Every right is tethered to its limits; free speech is no outlier. It manifests as a dance between one’s liberty to voice opinions and another’s sanctuary from potential harm.

From the global amphitheater come tales of clerical proclamations undergoing judicial examination:

In the land Down Under, the Catch the Fire Ministries case (2004) delineated the parameters of religious utterances, underscoring that spiritual tenets do not license slanderous assertions about other sects.

Canada’s apex court, through Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers (2001), reinforced that the wings of religious liberties aren’t boundless, especially when they overshadow others’ rights.

Such legal beacons illuminate the intricate tapestry of clerical expression.

Occasionally, from the pulpit’s elevation, have come fiery declarations, perhaps to instill discipline or invoke ‘divine trepidation’. Expressions such as “You’ll taste God’s fury”, “Your actions beckon the shadows”, or “Such attire mirrors harlots” and even something as lame and yet popular as ‘ you will go to hell’ as Nigerian clerics as fond of retorting might be perceived as either verbal assault or defamation.

Yet, a compelling conundrum remains: Can generic proclamations or those addressed to the masses be legally challenged by an individual?

The interplay between defamatory words and their audience is complex. Within Nigeria and globally, historical verdicts and statutes lend gravity to such concerns. It’s a dance between divinity and legality, where every step counts.

In the intricate ballet of speech and law, the pulpit and the courtroom aren’t realms apart but rather reflections in the same mirror. Words, fluid and powerful, mold the narrative. In the vast expanse of expression, it remains imperative for the pulpit’s echoes not to stifle the congregation’s voice.

For when divinity’s teachings veer into territory of transgression, the doors of the hallowed abode might just lead to the corridors of secular justice. The pulpit, as divine as its pedestal may be, stands anchored in the realm of accountability.

In all of these, I have just one question for you? Who shall bell the cat?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *