Iowa Supreme Court: Satan's secular connotations mean church member can sue over letter
Is the spirit of Satan at work in Shell Rock United Methodist Church? The Rev. Jerrold Swinton, a district supervisor for the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church, thought so when he visited the congregation in March 1999 to investigate "reports of strife." And he said as much in a letter to the congregation (which also went to members of the Shell Rock community). "A few months ago I attended worship in Shell Rock and I rejoiced to see so many young families in church. I was in despair when Jane Kliebenstein made an effort to whisper scornfully to me that this pastor must leave Shell Rock," he wrote.
Folks, when is enough, enough? When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tearing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you? … You know whether a person has the spirit of Jesus or Satan by their fruits. … I am distressed and perplexed why people have tolerance and compassion for anyone who habitually tears down the Body of Christ by habitually sowing discord and pain. … When the congregation of Shell Rock is ready to acknowledge they allowed the spirit of Satan to work in their midst, express some contrition and seek help—then help will come.
Swinton recommended that a church conference be called over the matter to "propose that Jane Kliebenstein be stripped of church offices. It is understood that if she continues to cause dissension, she will next be asked to leave the Shell Rock UMC."
Kliebenstein filed a civil suit, claiming that the letter defamed her integrity and moral character. A district court thew out the suit, saying it didn't have the jurisdiction to adjudicate the impact of a "purely ecclesiastical term" like "spirit of Satan."
Yesterday, however, the Iowa Supreme Court reinstated the suit, saying that because the words "carried secular overtones and were published to non-members of the church," Kliebenstein "has an actionable, albeit limited, claim that cannot be resolved by way of summary judgment."
In her decision (Summary | Full Text HTML | Full Text DOC), Justice Linda K. Neuman noted that the church-related controversy is "an area of discord traditionally considered 'off limits' for civil courts," but "the fact that Swinton's communication about Jane was published outside the congregation weakens this ecclesiastical shield." Furthermore, Neuman wrote, "the phrase 'spirit of Satan' has meaning in a secular, as well as sectarian, context."
The case has broad implications.
"This case reminds us that as members of congregations, clergy and governing bodies, we always need to be careful about how we use, publish or otherwise disseminate our words," Donn McLellan, interim associate executive for communications and interpretation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Synod of the Lakes and Prairies, told The Des Moines Register.
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman of Temple B'Nai Jeshurun in Des Moines agreed. "People need to be careful about what they say about people to other people," he told the paper. "In this case, it's an issue of circulating letters. This is a really big problem with e-mail. A person may think the communication is private, only to have it widely circulated."
But others said the Iowa Supreme Court wrongly engaged itself in church matters.
"What [Swinton] did wrong was when he wrote the letter—he didn't just send it to church members," said Russell Osgood, Grinnell College president and former dean of the Cornell University law school. "But I still think the speech itself is entirely ecclesiastical and could not give rise to legal action."
The apostle Paul could not be reached for comment.
The case now heads back to the lower courts for trial.
Politics and law:
- Constitution: Religion in, enlightenment out | After many a heated debate on the Convention floor, the preamble of the E.U. Constitution now reads: "[The E.U.] … Draws inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, which, always present in its heritage, has embedded within the life of society its perception of the central role of the human person and his inviolable and inalienable rights, and of respect for law" (EU Observer)
- Also: Constitutional wrangling enters last phase | The most recent text, presented yesterday by Convention president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing has come in for some heavy criticism (EU Observer)
- Rights debate over Sabbath working | Councilors in the Western Isles have been told they may be breaking human rights legislation by not allowing some businesses to operate on Sundays (BBC)
- What would Jesus do? Sock it to Alabama's corporate landowners | Alabama's Republican governor thinks he can convince the voters that Christian theology calls for a tax system that is fairer to the poor (Adam Cohen, The New York Times)
- Promote govt agenda, church told | President Yoweri Museveni has urged the Church to actively promote government programmes for development (New Vision, Kampala, Uganda)
- Also: Bishops have right to speak | It is impossible to divorce religion from politics because churches do not operate in a vacuum (Editorial, The Monitor, Kampala, Uganda)
- Peers' alarm over religious law reforms | Old common law offences, including blasphemy, were examined by the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences to see if they should be scrapped or updated (The Daily Telegraph, London)
- St. Paul pastor arrested in Laos | A Hmong pastor from St. Paul and two European journalists have been arrested in Laos while trying to document human rights abuses and religious persecution that advocates say the Hmong and Lao are suffering at the hands of the communist government (Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.)
- Also: St. Paul pastor, 2 journalists detained in Laos (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
- Jailed Chinese pastor is suffering after beatings, his relatives say | The jailed leader of an evangelical Christian sect has severe health problems as a result of beatings and mistreatment in prison (The New York Times)
- Too much faith in faith | Americans aren't as supportive of the faith-based initiative as the Bush administration would have us believe (Susan Jacoby, Newsday)
- Faith-based talk—where's the action? | Bush still talks about his faith-based initiative. But when the big money is divvied up, almost all of it goes to tax cuts, mostly for the wealthiest Americans (E. J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post)
- On a crusade: Miami's mayor wants to help poor | Perhaps more than any other mayor in Miami-Dade County, Manny Diaz has embraced President Bush's controversial faith-based initiative by reaching out to religious groups to help Miami deal with its growing social problems (The Miami Herald)
Church and state:
- Supreme Court's 1963 school-prayer decision didn't ban school prayer | Schempp case, far from 'kicking God out of school,' said kids can pray but not be led or forced in prayer by public schools (Charles Haynes, First Amendment Center)
- 8th Circuit hears case of school official who led graduation prayer | Nebraska family says school board member's recitation of Lord's Prayer at 2000 ceremony violated the separation of church and state (Associated Press)
- New Mexico party finds old church foe | Mexico, where wars have been fought to uphold the separation of church and state, is embroiled in a bitter debate over how far the Catholic Church can go in influencing voters, just weeks before key congressional elections (The Boston Globe)
- 2nd Circuit says church can rent Bronx school | Same appeals court had rejected congregation's previous lawsuit seeking to hold weekly services in New York school (Associated Press)
- Blurring church-state line wins amens, rebukes | No matter what happens, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore wins (Ann Woolner, Bloomberg News)
Billy Graham Oklahoma City mission:
- Graham's gospel will resound in Oklahoma City | Up to 40,000 people expected nightly at his 2nd mission this year (Associated Press)
- Graham seeks 'revived' churches | "I'm asking the Lord to do something beyond what we see in a crusade," Graham said during a meeting with the media at the Ford Center (The Oklahoman)
- Graham says strength is divine power | Rev. Billy Graham fairly oozed a grace and sincere modesty not characteristic of many who have reached such lofty heights (The Oklahoman)
- Businesses await financial blessing from mission | There's no doubt this week's Mission Oklahoma City with Billy Graham will be a boon for downtown merchants (The Oklahoman)
- Preparations under way for Billy Graham mission | Evangelist has not scheduled any more missions, but he says he's not sure if this one will be his last (The Oklahoman)
- Mission still needs $900,000 to meet budget | 60 percent of the mission's $1.9 million budget has been raised (The Oklahoman)
- Also: Full coverage of the mission from The Oklahoman
Missions and ministries:
- The evolving James Robison | To some, Robison's transformation has given him mainstream influence and standing. Perhaps as a result, he now has critics on both the right and the left (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
- A voice for the children | Baroness Caroline Cox of the British House of Lords is trying to be a voice for the voiceless, championing suffering children around the globe (The Washington Times)
- Earlier: Through Bombs and Bullets | Baroness Caroline Cox offers aid and advocacy to persecuted Christians (Christianity Today, Sept. 1, 1997)
- Idled hospital slated for religious revival | Bill Gothard will take over Nashville Memorial Hospital in Madison (Nashville Business Journal)
- Gay bishop-elect: 'I do believe this is of the spirit' | An interview with Gene Robinson (CNN)
- Prison ministry | In Richmond, Texas, a prison ministry program designed to provide social services and Bible studies classes to inmates in an effort to reform their lives is causing quite a stir (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly)
- Federal jury finds cops violated rights of 'confrontational evangelist' | Granville, Ohio, officers arrested Charles Spingola at July 4 celebrations for attracting crowds that blocked pedestrian traffic (Associated Press)
- Church cafes offer spot to wet your whistle and feed your soul | Steaming java's available just about anywhere nowadays, so it should come as no surprise that coffee shops are popping up in places of worship (The Dallas Morning News)
- Abortion stance may be tweaked | Area Methodists offer leaders a resolution weakening support for abortion rights (The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.)
- Texas tilts right on abortion and other issues | With three bills that herald sweeping restrictions, one state's debate sheds light on a national struggle (The Christian Science Monitor)
- What abortion-rights proponents don't want you to know | Warning: What follows is language that may make some people queasy, even though it comes directly from legislation overwhelmingly passed by both houses of Congress (Dennis Byrne, Chicago Tribune)
- Arguing honestly about stem cells | Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research are all too often faced with disingenuous arguments put forward by research advocates (Gilbert Meilaender, Chicago Tribune)
- Bush 'killing women' with prolife aid | Thousands of African women are being condemned to death because of America's refusal to give any aid money to health workers giving abortion advice, opponents claim (Scotland on Sunday)
- Euthanasia Bill clears first hurdle | The House of Lords has agreed to give a Bill, which would give terminally ill people the right to be helped to die, a second reading (BBC)
- Abortion rights groups call for march | Besides the march, supporters of abortion rights plan to go door-to-door, air television commercials and send millions of e-mail messages to get people to vote next fall (Associated Press)
Sex and marriage:
- Churches oppose changes to marriage law | Clergy see move as attack on religion; state sees fairness issue (The Prague Post)
- Ottawa should accept same-sex marriage | Same-sex marriages are valid human bonds (Editorial, The Globe & Mail, Toronto)
- Canadian debate on gay marriage | What Canada's newspaper editorials are saying (BBC)
- Williams on same-sex unions | What the Archbishop of Canterbury has said over the years (The Times, London)
- Marriage rights for gay couples | Gay and lesbian couples in Britain are to get the same legal rights as husbands and wives under government plans due to be published this month (The Times, London)
- Bishops eye pastors to fight gay marriage | Want Catholics to press legislators for amendment (The Boston Globe)
- More teens have sex and fewer parents know | Behind a study that finds even 12- to 14-year-olds are active is a communications lapse (The Christian Science Monitor)
- What the Bible says—and what it means on homosexuality | Comparing evangelical and liberal views on Scripture (The Times, London)
- Don't treat religion as 'optional extra' | Rowan Williams warned policymakers yesterday against treating religion as a separate and subordinate sphere of life' (The Times, London)
- Williams pulls out of church gay conference | Earlier this year, Dr Rowan Williams indicated his willingness to attend the Halfway to Lambeth conference, a major international event being organised by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (The Daily Telegraph, London)
- Archbishop fuels row with message of comfort to gays | The news that Dr Rowan Williams has sent a warm message of support to organizers of a national conference for lesbian and gay Christians will further enrage evangelicals already furious over the appointment of the homosexual theologian Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading (The Times, London)
- Also: Archbishop sends message to gay conference (PA News)
- Bishop of cheap grace | The Christian Church and Judaism teach that the family is an order of creation, and homosexual behavior falls short of the will of God, according to Scripture. Of course all of us do fall short of God's will. But Gene Robinson is not anybody. He aspires to be a bishop, an overseer within the Body of Christ (Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI)
- Justice to let staff honor gay pride | Department says office events were not barred (The Washington Post)
Clergy sex abuse:
- A stubborn scandal | A year later, the church falls short on many reforms (U.S. News & World Report)
- Also: A bishop cops a plea, but for victims it's not nearly enough (U.S. News & World Report)
- Episcopal pastor charged with rape faces ouster | Bishop says sex guilt would cost credentials (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- Scandal in the pews | Feud over disputed kiss divides Osterville church (The Boston Globe)
- Church settlement goes beyond the abused | The Roman Catholic Church is one of the strongest strands of the safety net in Louisville, but its programs may soon be cut because of the actions of wayward priests (The New York Times)
- Abuse cases cost Ky. archdiocese $25.7M | The settlement was one of the largest in the United States to come out of an archdiocese's coffers (Associated Press)
- Boston archbishop choice seen as imminent | Pittsburgh's bishop called top candidate (The Boston Globe)
- Some bishops resisting sex abuse survey | New lay review board seeks responses to first comprehensive study of priests' misconduct (The Washington Post)
- Van death prompts changes at church | A fatal van accident is raising questions about the safety of the vans that schools and churches use (Bay News 9, Tampa Bay)
- Also: Teen killed as crowded van rolls (Palm Beach Post)
- 2 Capitol Hill churches find merging is answer to prayers | Mainline churches had dwindling memberships (Seattle Times)
- Rural churches share the pain that comes with lack of clergy | It wasn't the opportunity to spread the gospel that led the Rev. Mary Dodgson to take on a third congregation. It was her bank account. (Associated Press)
- Feds aid church in zoning dispute | With one division of the U.S. Department of Justice already suing the Maui Planning Commission, another is now threatening a legal challenge in the same case involving a small church claiming its religious freedom is being violated (The Honolulu Advertiser)
- This old church | Historic sites deserve federal funds—even if they're churches. (Eugene Volokh, The Wall Street Journal)
- Reformed Church in America marks 375 years of worship | Singing praises in English, Dutch, Korean and Spanish, members of the Reformed Church in America gathered in Holland Sunday night to celebrate the denomination's 375th anniversary (The Holland Sentinel, Mich.)
- How to manage a parish | Chicago-area priests who had spent years learning religious doctrine and liturgy welcomed a seminar that included subjects such as time management and delegation of responsibility (Chicago Tribune)
- Christ Lutheran Church pastor leaves for priesthood (York Daily Record)
- New needs send spires skyward | Young-family influx stirs church boom (The Washington Post)
- Minister goes from heretic to hero | David Benke is reelected as president of the denomination's Atlantic District, the position from which he had been suspended until a church appeals panel ruled otherwise last month (The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y.)
- Finding truth at the motion picture show | The connection between spiritual truths and motion pictures is examined in "Praying the Movies: Daily Meditations from Classic Films" by Edward McNulty, a Presbyterian minister from New York (Newton Kansan)
- Theological science fiction | Why The Matrix matters (Gregory Benford, Reason)
- Egypt bans 'too religious' Matrix | The country's censorship board said the film's storyline, about the search for the creator and control of the human race, may cause "crises" (BBC)
- Mr. Freeman, you look divine | The casting of Morgan Freeman as God in "Bruce Almighty" has provoked both satisfaction and skepticism among black religious figures and film scholars (The New York Times)
- Religious row over Mel's film | Gibson has threatened a lawsuit against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Jewish-run Anti-Defamation League over a report criticizing the depiction of Jews in his controversial new film about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (The Herald Sun, Melbourne, Australia)
- 'Reality church' streams on Web from Modesto across the globe | For the past two months, Pastor Jeff Green has been streaming his "at-home" services via live simultaneous Webcast to churches and individuals from Ohio to England (The Modesto Bee, Calif.)
- Mongolian Christian TV station shuts down | Disputes over finances and control led the American partners to shut down 8-year-old Eagle TV, an unusual Christian-oriented business in this Buddhist, formerly communist society (Associated Press)
- God is in the retail | Perhaps the Devil doesn't have all the best tunes after all. Evanescence became the first Christian rock band to top the charts this week. But God and pop go way back (Steve Jelbert, The Independent, London)
- More Goth than gospel | U.S. Christian rock band Evanescence have stormed to the top of the British charts. But don't expect happy-clappy guitar-strumming - they've kicked up a hell of a row back home (The Guardian, London)
- Christian bands, crossing over | A new crop of bands has broadened the appeal of Christian rock by emphasizing musical originality rather than a sermonizing message (The New York Times)
- Teen novel sales soar as stories get sexier, more timely | Book covers with bare legs, bikini tops, shiny leather handbags -- no, it's not "Sex in the City" but "Gossip Girl," one of the new, definitely grown-up series of novels for the 12-to-18 crowd (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- Also: Excerpts from 'Young Adult' books | Here are excerpts from the some of new books written for the "Young Adult" market that are more risque and more tightly roped to contemporary events than in the past. Industry experts say that's why they are so successful (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- Sacred mysteries: Is it still the Word of God? | On the Aussie Bible, The Text Bible, the Cockney Gospel, and other recent oddities (Christopher Howse, The Daily Telegraph, London)
- Book inspires worship sensation | "The Purpose-Driven Life" has struck a nerve and sold more than 2.7 million copies, lifting it to the No. 2 spot on the New York Times' hardcover advice list. (Knight Ridder)
- In gold ink on a chip, the world's tiniest book | A five-millimeter-square copy of the New Testament is the smallest reproduction yet of a printed book (The New York Times)
- Ships collide in search for truth | Ex-ambassador says biblical expert misled her over Malta book (Rocky Mountain News, Denver)
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