PALM BAY – A state appeals court ruled last month that a Brevard County man can sue his pastor for defamation of character, after the minister told his congregation that the man is gay and that his upcoming marriage is a sham, designed to hide his homosexuality.
According to court documents, Darrel Bilbrey became a member of First Pentecostal Church of South Brevard, in Palm Bay, in 2007, and became a protégé to its pastor, David Myers, who sponsored him in obtaining a minister’s certification.
At one point, Myers asked if Bilbrey was gay, which he denied. Bilbrey alleges that Myers then falsely accused him of being homosexual during a sermon, as well as in conversation with the father of Bilbrey’s fiancée. Bilbrey filed suit against Myers and First Pentecostal for defamation.
The pastor defended himself on First Amendment grounds, citing the “church-autonomy doctrine,” also called the religious-autonomy principle, which states that courts lack jurisdiction in church matters. A lower court agreed with Myers, ruling that the church-autonomy doctrine called for dismissing Bilbrey’s lawsuit. But on June 29, the Court of Appeals for Florida’s 5th Judicial District reinstated the defamation claim, stating that lower courts are divided in their application of the church-autonomy doctrine.