In a case involving a North Texas church that recently gained national notoriety for a sermon in which one of its pastors called for the execution of gay people, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals has allowed plaintiffs to pursue their defamation, conversion, and declaratory judgment actions against dissident congregants.

Seth Bookout, Leslye Romero, and Ryan Gallagher v. Jonathan Shelley and Stedfast Baptist Church (No. 02-22-00055-DV) from an internal battle for control over the church. In 2021 Bookout, Romero, and Gallagher (defendants/appellants), claiming that they were the legally constituted board of directors of the church, fired the church’s pastor, Shelley, and seized control of the church’s bank account. Shelley and the church sued, seeking a declaration that defendants were not directors and acted without authority, and making conversion and defamation and defamation claims. Defendants moved to dismiss under the TCPA, alleging that plaintiffs’ action was based on or in response to the defendants’ exercise of their rights of speech and association. The trial court denied the motion and awarded plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees upon a finding that the TCPA motion was frivolous and made for the purpose of delay. Defendants appealed.

In a 77-page opinion by Justice Bassel, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court. In addition to the TCPA issues, the case also involved the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which bars civil courts from adjudicating “matters of theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or members’ comformance to the church’s moral standards” (citations omitted). Defendants made this argument for the first time on appeal, but since it involves the subject matter jurisdiction of the trial court, the court of appeals must review it. As we have seen in other recent cases applying the doctrine (including another one from the Fort Worth court), the doctrine does not deprive a court of jurisdiction when the dispute involves the application of “neutral principles of law to non-ecclesiastical issues involving religious entities in the same manner as they apply those principles to other causes of action” (citations omitted). These issues include disputes involving land titles, trusts, and corporate formation, governance, and dissolution. As to the declaratory judgment action, the court determined that core issue in the lawsuit was whether defendants had the appropriate authority under the corporate charter and bylaws. Resolving this issue involves the construction of those documents, not delving into church doctrine or other internal matters. Similarly, the conversion claim stemmed from the same issue, so it, too, did not run afoul of the doctrine. Finally, two of the defamation claims—that Shelley abused his children and embezzled money from the church—did not “depend on any church doctrine or turn on anyone’s religious beliefs.” The court did find, however, that the doctrine barred the court from adjudicating whether Bookout’s accusations that the church was a “cult” and Shelley was a “sodomite,” since both statements would involve the court in examining church doctrines. Still, the court concluded that the trial court had jurisdiction over all of plaintiffs’ causes of action.

Turning to the TCPA (post-2019 amendments), the court first examined Shelley’s defamation claim against Bookout. The parties agreed that the TCPA applied to this claim, so the focus of the analysis became whether Shelley established by clear and specific evidence the elements of a defamation action: (1) the publication of a false statement of fact to a third party; (2) that was defamatory concerning the plaintiff; (3) with the requisite degree of fault; and (4) damages in some cases” (citations omitted). The two statements at issue, child abuse and embezzlement, alleged criminal acts and their truth or falsity could be objectively verified. The question then became whether Shelley could show the requisite degree of fault. For private individuals, the standard is negligence, but for public figures, the standard rises to actual malice. In this case, Shelley admitted that, as pastor of the congregation, he was a limited-purpose public figure for purposes of defamation law and the TCPA. He thus needed to present a minimum quantum of evidence that Bookout either knew his statements were false or acted with reckless disregard of the truth. The court found that Shelley met the actual malice standard based on his vehement denial of the child abuse allegation and the existence of evidence in Bookout’s possession that indicated that Shelley did not, in fact, use church funds to remodel his house. It did not help Bookout’s case that he made the allegedly defamatory statements after he and Shelley fell out over, among other things, Bookout’s apparently loud and strident insistence that the world was flat. Finally, since the child abuse charge was “so obviously hurtful to [Shelley’s] reputation that the jury may presume general damages,” Shelley had no need to offer evidence on that element of the cause of action (so-called “textual defamation” or, formerly, “defamation per se).

As to the conversion and declaratory judgment actions, the court determined that the TCPA applied because defendants were pursuing a “common interest” when they appointed themselves directors, fired Shelley, and seized the bank account. Rightly or wrongly, those actions involved their right to associate in coming together to respond to a matter of public concern, fitting both causes of action into the TCPA. The court proceeded to an analysis of whether plaintiffs made the necessary prima facie showing on each element of those causes of actions and concluded that they did. The question then swung back to defendants, who had to establish an affirmative defense that would entitle them to judgment as a matter of law. This they failed to do. The trial court thus correctly denied their TCPA motion to dismiss the conversion and declaratory judgment claims. Finally, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to plaintiffs for defending defendants’ TCPA motions. Even though the record itself did not clearly indicate anything in particular, the court opined that “[M]indful that the trial court has a unique vantage point in overseeing this internecine conflict and is in the best position to evaluate circumstances which may not be readily apparent from a cold record, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that Appellants’ TCPA motion was filed solely for the purposes of delay” (citations omitted).

This immensely scholarly opinion is well worth reading for its up-to-date analysis of defamation law and the proper application of the TCPA to three distinct causes of action. We also find it interesting that this is the third opinion in recent months to run into the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which either is a weird coincidence or means that nasty internal fights within churches are producing more litigation than ever before.

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