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Jury award to fired Ore. pastor upheld

By The Associated Press
02.09.10

PORTLAND, Ore. — An appeals court has upheld a $355,000 jury award to a fired pastor, finding that a church can't use the First Amendment as a defense in this case.

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Tim Tubra that a church can't rely on the First Amendment to defend against a defamation lawsuit if church officials accused the man of being a thief in front of the congregation.

Tubra was fired as interim pastor of the Vernonia Foursquare Church in 2004 after church officials accused him of misappropriation of church money. Tubra discovered later that church officials had made the accusation public in a letter read aloud to the congregation. He was never charged with a crime.

A Multnomah County jury sided with Tubra in his lawsuit, but the trial judge threw out the verdict, holding that because of First Amendment issues the court had no jurisdiction. Earlier the judge had rejected the church lawyers' efforts to get the case thrown out on that basis, but a motion after the verdict changed the judge's mind.

The appeals court said the defaming statements were not religious in nature and thus didn't qualify for First Amendment protection. The opinion written by Judge Rex Armstrong came late last month.

Defense lawyer John T. Kaempf said the ruling would be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. "The First Amendment protects a church's right to speak to church members about a church pastor's conduct without interference by secular courts," Kaempf said in an e-mail. "Until the Oregon Court of Appeals decision, this was the holding of every court in the country addressing similar facts."

John W. Whitehead, a lawyer who is president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal organization, said the key to a court's involvement in church matters is whether the issue is ecclesiastical.

The Portland Oregonian quoted Professor Steven K. Green from Willamette University as saying that a "zone of protection" that historically has surrounded internal church matters has been changing markedly.

"The decision puts Oregon on the vanguard in this area," Green told the newspaper. "Traditionally, employment disputes internal to a church have been off limits to courts because of the difficulty of determining what is theological." Green is the director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy at the school.

The attorney for the Foursquare Church said no charges were filed against the former pastor because officials wanted to resolve the issue within the church community.

According to the court file, the events in Vernonia involved a disagreement between Tubra and church elders about his compensation.

Tubra has served more than 20 years in ministry but was unable to find steady work as a pastor after what happened. He had to sell his house and he and his wife moved into a trailer, according to court documents. Tubra filed a defamation suit in September 2005 against The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Tubra's lawyer, Christopher G. Lundberg, said his client was heartened by the appeals court decision. "Mr. Tubra's rights have been vindicated again," Lundberg said. "This is big and very meaningful to him."


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