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Iowa Conference asks U.S. Supreme Court to review case

9/11/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

For related coverage, see UMNS story #326.

By United Methodist News Service

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The U.S. Supreme Court
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."

The denomination's 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 controversial wording.

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 community.

"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."

"This case 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 case.

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 case.

Following the state court ruling, the Iowa Annual Conference said it would take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We 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."

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