Methodists in Iowa are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lower
court’s decision that a church can be sued for using the term “the
spirit of Satan.” The Supreme Court, at One First St. N.E. in
Washington, begins and ends its one-year term on the first Monday in
October. About 8,000 petitions are filed in a term, along with more than
1,200 additional applications that can be acted upon by a single
justice. A UMNS photo by Franz Jantzen, Collection of the Supreme Court
of the United States. Editors note: mandatory credit, Franz Jantzen,
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo number
03-294, Accompanies UMNS #432, 9/11/03
United Methodists in Iowa are asking the U.S.
Supreme Court to review a lower court's decision that a church can be
sued for using the term "the spirit of Satan."
Iowa Annual Conference and Shell Rock (Iowa) United Methodist Church
filed the request Sept. 9. Earlier, the Iowa Supreme Court had ruled
against the conference and the church in a defamation case involving the
The case began in 1999, when a couple
attending the Shell Rock church sued the conference and church because
of a letter written by then-district superintendent Jerrold Swinton. In
his letter, Swinton warned that "the spirit of Satan" was at work in the
Shell Rock congregation.
Swinton wrote the letter after visiting
the church and hearing comments by a Shell Rock member, Jane
Kliebenstein, regarding the pastor. Although the letter did not
specifically mention her in connection with the "spirit of Satan"
comment, Kliebenstein and her husband, Glen, claimed it falsely attacked
Jane's "integrity and moral character," damaging her reputation in the
"It is truly unfortunate that this internal matter of
church governance has become such a public issue," said Bishop Gregory
V. Palmer, who leads the Iowa Conference.
"It is my hope and
prayer that as the writ of certiorari is considered by the Supreme Court
of the U.S. that all parties involved can begin to sense God's healing
power in this continuance time," he said. "It will be many months before
we know whether the case will be heard, and until that time there is
much to be done to further God's realm here on earth."
has nationwide implications for churches," said Kelly Shackelford,
chief counsel with Liberty Legal Institute, a legal organization that
defends religious freedom and First Amendment rights. "No judge has the
authority under our Constitution to drag a church into court for
expressing its religious beliefs."
Liberty Legal Institute became
interested in the case because of its interest in religious freedom,
said Hiram Sasser, staff attorney assigned to this case. "We are
concerned about churches being sued over cases like this," he said. He
added that other denominations have expressed interest in joining in the
In the letter, Swinton 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?" The
letter also called on church members to acknowledge that "the spirit of
Satan" was at work in the church.
The letter went on to advise
the church's staff parish committee to call a meeting to propose that
Jane Kliebenstein be stripped of church offices.
A lower court
had thrown out the case, arguing that the phrase "spirit of Satan" was a
"purely ecclesiastical term, deriving its meaning from religious
dogma," and for that reason the court could not judge its impact in a
civil suit for defamation. The Kliebensteins appealed the ruling to the
Iowa Supreme Court.
The higher court agreed that judges could not
interfere with matters of faith and internal church discipline.
However, the court ruled that the circulation of Swinton's letter
outside the congregation "weakened the shield" for the church. While
noting that the phrase has religious roots, the court also ruled that it
carries an "unflattering secular meaning."
In their suit for
defamation, the Kliebensteins are seeking compensation for damages in a
"fair and reasonable amount." Their attorney declined to comment on the
Following the state court ruling, the Iowa Annual Conference said it would take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
are disappointed in the decision and believe it to be an unfortunate
erosion of First Amendment rights of a religious organization," the
conference said. "We believe that the mere fact that this notice of a
church meeting was accidentally sent to non-church members should not
constitute a waver of constitutional rights."