The court held that members of the Covenant Reformed Church's board of elders didn't defame the two women because they were expressing their religious beliefs. It also found that the Pella church wasn't obligated to provide counseling to the women that conflicted with its religious teachings. But it did allow the women's challenge to proceed alleging that the church didn't adequately supervise the pastor, Patrick Edouard.
Edouard, who was later removed from the ministry, was convicted of sexual exploitation by a counselor in 2012. Iowa law treats religious leaders as counselors and bars them from having sexual contact with congregants they're counseling. The jury acquitted him of sexual abuse — a charge that encompasses the misuse of authority to coerce the women into sex.
Authorities say Edouard pressured several women he counseled into sex, telling them it would heal them. One woman said Edouard used his position as pastor to recruit victims. The church elders said that ascribing all the blame to Edouard was a "false dichotomy" because the women "are certainly sinned against, but they are also sinning." One elder allegedly told the women they weren't victims and another allegedly said that the women ought to go to jail, too.
"They sinned sexually, even though they can rightly in one sense be denominated as victims of Patrick's machinations," the elders wrote in a letter circulated among themselves, according to court filings.
Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for the court that those statements were either opinions, regardless of whether they were offensive, or protected by the First Amendment, which prohibits courts from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The court found that "whether the women are victims or sinners in need of forgiveness is not objectively capable of proof or disproof."
Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose students filed a brief supporting the church, said the court was essentially being asked to evaluate a church's moral understanding of a situation to determine whether that religious view was reasonable.
"I would imagine different religious belief systems would come to different views, different judgments on that. All those judgments are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment," Volokh said.
The court did allow a portion of the lawsuit to proceed — a claim that the church was negligent in its supervision of Edouard. The court said all employers must exercise care to prevent foreseeable misconduct. The court said one of the two women brought her claim too late to meet a statute of limitations, but it allowed the other woman's claim.
Roxanne Conlin, a Des Moines attorney representing the women, said the case will return to Marion County District Court. She was critical of the decision to dismiss the similar negligence claim because she said her client was unable to take action within the two-year window because Edouward remained in a position of power over her and her family.
"It is a concept that does not belong in a sexual exploitation case," Conlin said. "But I'm not on the Supreme Court." Attorneys for the church didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.
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