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."

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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.

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Billy Graham Oklahoma City mission:

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Sexual ethics:

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Church life:


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