Church Sues Woman for Defamation; Religious Entitlement Escalates

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COMMENTARY | Well, that's new. The Beaverton Grace Bible Church in Oregon is suing former member Julie Anne Smith for defamation. According to MSNBC, the mother of seven left the church about four years ago and has been posting negative reviews of the church online. She had a blog Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors to write about the abuse she believes she suffered at the hands of the church.

Pastor Charles O'Neal wasn't having it, though, so he filed the $500,000 lawsuit against Smith and her daughter, KATU reports. The ACLU has filed a motion to dismiss on Smith's behalf citing her First Amendment rights.

In the complaint, available in bits and pieces on Smith's blog, O'Neal alleges that claims of narcissism, statements the church is "creepy" and "cult-like" among other, stronger allegations, including of sexual abuse cover-up, amount to defamation of the church.

The lawsuit illuminates the growing sense of entitlement from religious institutions in the political climate. I get the super-religious feel like they're running the show. According to the comprehensive Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 71 percent believe in God or some universal spirit. According to Gallup, 68 percent are very or moderately religious.

Yet, according to Pew, 51 percent think religious conservatives have too much power over the GOP. Among Democrats, 62 percent think religious conservatives have too much power over Republicans; perhaps most importantly, 57 percent of independents agree.

The white Evangelicals wielding that "religious conservative" power. They think they should have that power. In fact, 58 percent think nonreligious liberals are the problem with Democrats.

But it doesn't seem to matter how many times it's said, it falls on increasingly religiously shrill ears. Religion and government aren't meant to mix.

This lawsuit is ludicrous, and not simply because of its content. It shows an out-of-proportion sense of importance from this pastor and his church, and it looks to the courts to enforce Beaverton Grace Bible Church's apparent sense of untouchability.

That is not why we have our courts, to be used as tools of religious oppression. Everyone is free to follow or not follow a religion, to praise a religion or to criticize it.

Though there have been a few cases dealing with churches and defamation nationwide, the courts cannot mediate disputes about church cannon or bylaw, around which this lawsuit seems to center. But the issue is much more broad. This pastor and his church want to silence dissent about the practices of the congregation and want to use the force of the government to punish that dissent.

Now just imagine what happens if they succeed.

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