Julie Anne Smith Prevails Against Her Former Church

"This is what America is all about. We need to be able to speak freely even if it's not polite or falls on ears that really (don't) want to hear this kind of thing."

Julie Anne Smith (KATU interview)

Julie Anne Smith

I will never forget that e-mail Dee and I received from Julie Anne Smith months ago explaining that she was being sued by her pastor / church for $500,000.  Why???  Because she had posted Google reviews about her former pastor and church of a critical nature.  We couldn't believe it!  Here is how Julie Anne explains her reason for blogging:

"I began this blog in Feb. 2012 after noticing that the Google reviews I had posted of my former church were being removed. Days after the commencement of this blog, I received a legal summons suing me and three others for defamation to the tune of $500,000. The story of spiritual abuse needs to be told. People are being hurt emotionally and spiritually by pastors who use bully tactics and we need a place to learn, to talk freely, and to heal. I will not be silenced."

We first reported on this lawsuit back in May.  The post was entitled:  Pastor makes International News by Suing Blogging Critic – Is John MacArthur's Church involved?

We even agreed to post a press release by Chuck O'Neal, Julie Anne Smith's former pastor. 

Earlier today the judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by Beaverton Grace Bible Church (BGBC) against Julie Anne Smith and other former church members including her daughter, Hannah Smith, and Meaghan Varela.  The local media outlets were the first to break the news with these stories:

Beaverton Grace Bible Church loses in lawsuit against former church members

"The church [Beaverton Grace Bible Church] claimed the women had defamed it and O'Neal in Google reviews and Julie Anne Smith's blog about the church.

Their attorney, Linda K. Williams, said the church practices "Old Testament shunning" and her clients were all eventually ostracized by the church. Their negative comments, which they published online, were protected free speech, she said.

Circuit Judge Jim Fun announced his decision in a letter he mailed to the parties Monday.

Fun granted the defendants' special motions to strike and ordered the plaintiffs to pay their costs and attorney fees."

Judge dismisses case where pastor sued former parishioner

"A judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a church pastor who claimed an online review of his church by a former parishioner was defamatory.  At the heart of the lawsuit was a simple question: Was the online review protected free speech, or did it cross the line into defamatory speech.

On Thursday, Washington County Judge Jim Fun sided with the defendants and dismissed the case.  “The court finds that the defendant’s internet postings on plaintiff’s website and defendant Julie Anne Smith’s blog site were made in a public forum and concern an issue of public interest,” Fun wrote in his ruling.

Smith, who was one of several defendants in the case, left the Beaverton Grace Bible Church in 2008. She says she was shunned afterward, and then wrote reviews and a blog calling the pastor a "wolf" and used words like "control", "cult" and "spiritual abuse". "

 A reporter for Fox 12 News explained the judge's position, as follows: 

"The report from Judge Jim Fun said the internet postings 'were made in a public forum and concern an issue of public interest. The court further finds that the plaintiff has not met the burden of presenting substantial evidence the defendant's statements are defamatory.' "

There can be no doubt that the major news outlets will be reporting on this story, which has garnered tremendous attention.  I do hope that hyper-authoritarian pastors are paying attention…  First there was Tom Rich (on the East Coast); now Julie Anne Smith (on the West Coast). 

Yep, from coast to coast judges are ruling in favor of parishioners who have the right to exercise their free speech.  It does appear that the internet is the modern day version of the Gutenberg Press which was a major contributing factor to the Reformation.  Martin Luther's positions were disseminated far and wide through that advancement in technology.  We believe the internet was invented for such a time as this…

Congratulations Julie Anne!  You are a real trailblazer.  If you'd like to post a comment on Julie Anne's blog, go to this link

It's a new day, and this song is dedicated to Julie Anne and her co-defendants for their tremendous courage.  You are an inspiration to all of us!

It really is a new day – we are starting our Bible reading program over again!

Lydia's Corner:   Genesis 1:1-2:25  Matthew 1:1-2:12  Psalm 1:1-6  Proverbs 1:1-6


Julie Anne Smith Prevails Against Her Former Church — 18 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this summary of the ruling and links, Deb. You’ve provided yet another point of evidence to one of the things that has struck me most about Julie Anne’s story. And that’s how much important information is now being “crowd-sourced.”

    On my reading stack is a book entitled, *Digitally Enabled Social Change* – and I believe that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing at work the last 9 months or so with a series of episodes that adds up to epic change. To me, what’s gone on seems astounding! When I suffered pretty much alone and in silence through a horrific church split 35 years ago, there were NO books yet on surviving the trauma of spiritual abuse. There was NO internet for me to search for answers or connect with those with similar experiences. There were NO specialist organizations or ministries out there that I could find to help. But now … wow!

    There are many books and online lists with indicators of malignant ministers, and healthy versus toxic ministries. They include perspectives drawn from biblical and theological studies, psychology and mental health, sociological and cultural research on cults, etc.

    We all have access via the internet to much more detail about relevant legal issues and their ramifications if we choose to publicly bring into the light what authoritarians want to keep in the dark. (Shout outs here go to “Arce” and “An Attorney” and others for contributing from their professional specialities!)

    We’ve seen in Julie Anne’s story and other recent situations how quickly links to the original documents and news reports and Scriptures and other relevant materials become available through a network of “survivor and watchdog blogs.” It’s far easier and faster to verify facts and do a “multi-person MRI” on the evidence that is emerging of ministerial malpractice, organizational toxicity, etc. That lets us counter innuendo and incendiary comments with details and source links – for those with ears to hear.

    Survivors are coming forward with the stories and being heard, and sharing practical help that give real hope to those emerging from victim status, that they, too, can overcome what has happened to them. People can come up with solid sets of questions about probable situations of spiritual abuse they’ve faced, and others will share accurate answers that really help those who want to think critically about their situations and discern what to do.

    We who doubt can hear the truth that we’re not responsible for what abusive leaders or their henchmen did to us. We who hurt can be validated that God still loves and cares about us, and that He didn’t create these devastating situations in order to teach us some perverse kind of lesson. We who feel isolated can find a new friend or two willing to weep with those who weep and, as we do now with Julie Anne, rejoice with those who rejoice!

    Bullies no longer get a “virtual pass.” And authoritarian organizations cannot keep promoting themselves on the web and advertising their celebrity leaders – and then get away with “scrub” posts and emails and other digital details that later prove embarrassing. These days, too many people are taking screenshots of tirades and trolling, and getting downloads of relevant documentation from the internet. And the “Wayback Machine” doesn’t cache everything, but I think we’re finding that digital activists are catching key data quickly enough to get things covered.

    We’re no longer living in the same world as even a year ago. It’s not merely been a “tipping point” reached, but something more, I believe. It’s this new paradigm of digital activism on behalf of spiritual abuse survivors that is being progressively explored and tested and consolidated – corporately, not just individually. And the systems won’t be going back to an era of having to suffer without protection … because I don’t think WE will let it go back to the way it was, where bullies got away with gagging our voices, and their enablers trolled our blogs unfettered, and their excusers sat on the sidelines in silence.

    All this isn’t meant to intimidate the bullies … “do unto them what they’ve done unto others” … but simply to suggest that we, the Body of Christ, have needed to be better stewards in holding accountable in the virtual realm those Christian celebrities and organizations that have presented a persona to cover the toxic realities underneath. It’s happening. Documenting, questioning, challenging those individuals and organizations that inflict harm. Protecting and supporting those who’ve been victimized. And it even appears from how Julie Anne’s story unfolded, maybe we’re seeing a new kind of Christian unity evolving – integrated around seeking help and hope to get the Church on track to be a safe place for all and an abusive place for none.

    I’m thankful for Julie Anne’s courage in staying the course, and for the many people who’ve been encouraging along the way. If this kind of support can happen across traditional lines in the Church, maybe it’s more likely to happen in a lot more churches on the frontlines. I hope so – I pray so! And if nothing else, victims of spiritual abuse who find their way to online support networks will find they do not have to suffer alone, in silence, with no resources.

    Truly, that new day is here …

  2. I am happy for this result. “Wolf”, “control”, “cult”, “spiritual abuse” are all opinion.

    My pastor always says, “People are going to talk.”

    We have never and would never try to shut down what people say to each other about their opinions.

    Resorting to legal action to try and stop that is a losing proposition for a church. There might be an unusual circumstance where it would be appropriate, but most of the time, it is not, and will only hurt the church.

    I am glad that this young woman prevailed.

    I also noted that the story says under Oregon law the plaintiff (the church in this case) has to present “substantial evidence.” I don’t know what that means in Oregon law, but it sounds like a pretty high burden. The church did not think this through before it filed suit, apparently.

  3. This is great news, especially the awarding of costs.

    The sad part is that it is unlikely that this will lead to any change at BGBC.

    Since the pastor is a Calvinist, he will be obligated to believe that this is God’s will. Since he is incapable of admitting error, he will then interpret the event as a “trial” which God is putting them through for His own purposes, and to sanctify them.

    That is, “We know that we are in the right, but sometimes God allows evil to prevail in order to test his people and sanctify them blah blah blah persecution of the early church blah blah blah Paul’s enemies blah blah blah God’s own Son blah blah blah.”

    Instead of seeing the outcome as a judicial sanction for their own misdeeds, they will continue to be able to play the victim card, which is the norm for all of these groups, as we have seen over and over again (and most recently with D. Wilson).

    Also, I fully expect some sort of TeaParty-esque condemnation of the “godless, liberal” judge and his “failure to understand the 1st Amendment, blah blah blah”.

  4. The Bad Dog –

    Boy, I’ve heard those arguments way too often! I think it would be best for Pastor to refrain from speaking on the subject, unless it is to apologize to Julie Anne and the others for all the trouble his pride and self-righteousness has caused in so many lives.

    Maybe Mohler will come defend him and Devers will pastor him for a season 😉

  5. Three cheers for Julie Anne! I agree with the insights of the power of the Internet. These “celebrities” will have to learn that we all aren’t as dumb as they wish we were! Just the other day I was looking for a quote a patrio had posted and discovered she had erased three years’ history of her inflammatory blog. Do these people seriously think this can keep the truth from surfacing? I see this as a tremendous victory for spiritual abuse survivors everywhere!

  6. I suspect that the legal fees and costs for Julie Anne, Hannah, and Meaghan could easily total $50,000. In addition, Julie Anne should ask the court to order that the plaintiffs (church and pastor) pay her reasonable expenses for her having to travel from her out of state home to the site of the court, including mileage at IRS rates for business expenses, hotel, and meals, plus any additional child care or substitute teacher expense (she is a home schooler). I do believe that it is unlikely that the church and pastor will be able to pay in an reasonable time, and that the church may need to fire and sue the pastor to make him pay it rather than them.

  7. Great comments everyone! When hyper-authoritarianism rears its ugly head, we now have an effective way to combat it. There can be no question that blogging is the great equalizer in 21st century Christendom.

  8. @An Attorney – “…the church may need to fire and sue the pastor to make him pay it rather than them.”

    LOL. You made a funny.

    “V. We Believe In Spiritual Authority.
    God Himself has established order in every area of our lives, and the church is no exception. God in Scripture has clearly given us the structure of authority for the church. Christ is the head of the church and He mediates His rule through the shepherding of godly elders (pastors). These elders (pastors), having a high view of God and Scripture, being devoted to the preaching, teaching and practicing of sound doctrine, and being examples of personal holiness before the congregation, are responsible to lead the church. The Bible teaches that the congregation is accountable to the elders (pastors) and that the elders (pastors) are accountable to God. Therefore, all decision-making authority is vested in the elders (pastors), who shepherd the church.” Source: http://www.beavertongracebible.org/doctrine.html

    So, firing the pastor = firing God.

  9. That Bad Dog,

    Thanks for sharing that excerpt from the BGBC ‘rule book’.

    So if a ‘godly elder’ sues, is he still qualified to lead?

  10. ! Just the other day I was looking for a quote a patrio had posted and discovered she had erased three years’ history of her inflammatory blog. Do these people seriously think this can keep the truth from surfacing? — ThatMom

    doubleplusungood ref doubleplusunevents.
    doubleplusungood ref doubleplusunpersons.

    Thanks for sharing that excerpt from the BGBC ‘rule book’.

    So if a ‘godly elder’ sues, is he still qualified to lead? — Deb

    The Party Can Do No Wrong —
    Ees Party Line, Comrade!

  11. Hmm…so essentially (regarding quote from BGBC rules), they have effectively reinstated the ‘Divine Right of Kings’….

    1. God says Christ is the head of the church okay
    2. God says Christ mediates his rule through pastors wait, what?
    3. God says that pastors, being more godly and diligent and so much more special than everyone else, have the heavy burden of telling everyone else how to live
    4. God says the peasants must obey their pastors because their pastors obey God
    5. God says pastors don’t have to answer to the sheep
    6. God says the Pastor gets to make the rules and break them if he wants because he’s ‘Answerable to God(TM)’
    7. So get the hell out of the pastor’s business, shut up, get in line and stay with the program….

  12. Thanks to the internet and bloggers like this one, pastors cannot get away with abusing their critics. My family and I left the institutional religious system last year and we have never been happier. It isn’t about “going to church”. It is about BEING THE CHURCH. We are called to follow Christ, not a harlot religious system that is more often than not in direct rebellion to Him.

  13. Ronnie

    Abusive churches now claim that you cannot be a christian unless you join in on their lawyer driven covenants and become a member so they can discipline you for your attitude.There is a reason people are leaving the organized church in droves.

    The 9 Marks blog recently posted an article about how the local church possesses “the keys to the kingdom” and have the right to decide who is or is not “regenrate.”  These Calvinistas are going down a dark road.

    My newest philosophy is: do not join a local church unless you have attended it for a couple of years and know the ins and outs. If there is even one red flag, such as a covenant that they insist you sign  and do not advise you that you are looking at a legally vetted document, do not join, ever.

  14. Congratulations to you Julie Anne. I had NO doubt this would be tossed. NONE whatsoever. AS I said way back in 2007 as my blog Headline when I exposed those within the Baptist Mafia; "The Internet, is The Great Equalizer" I guess those within the SBC and especially the Georgia Baptist Convention Baptist Mafia have some really smart lawyers because I tried to get them to SLAPP me without success. I wanted to expose them in a public forum in front of a Judge and 12 jurors…I really did. Next.

  15. Thank you, everyone, for the support. Regarding Rom 13 on governing authorities. He covered that passage for weeks (very repetitious). He knows those verses. He expects his congregants to follow it. But what he preached from the pulpit may not be what he practices. I guess we’ll all find out how he submits to authority by seeing if he pays what the court orders. Don’t worry, I’ll keep y’all posted here and on my blog.

  16. Brad said: And it even appears from how Julie Anne’s story unfolded, maybe we’re seeing a new kind of Christian unity evolving – integrated around seeking help and hope to get the Church on track to be a safe place for all and an abusive place for none.

    Let it be so! Great post, Brad. Your research skills amaze me.

  17. To clear two things up: John MacArthur’s church is unlikely to have counseled a pastor to sue a(n ex-)congregant based on 1 Corinthians 6, which I understand John MacArthur and Phil Johnson take very seriously, though there may be other elders at Grace Community Church who think differently in private. From what I’ve seen of Grace to You and the church there, they seem to have a stance of “why not rather let yourselves be wronged?” rather than a PR/cover-up mentality.

    Secondly, something is very wrong with the legal system in this country that people can be ruined financially by abusive organizations such as “churches” and cults. I grew up in the UK, and the law there is such that if an organization loses a libel case, they are LIABLE for all the costs of the victim of their false charges. Steve Hassan mentions this in “Combatting Cult Mind Control”. Since the Scientologists love to take people to court just to waste their time and ruin them, it is a very healthy deterrent to abuse and protects freedom of speech! The Moonies tried a libel action in the UK and LOST one time, which meant they paid for all legal fees of both parties. Maybe this is something we need to be writing our senators and representatives about- the law really needs to change on this, because currently our liability culture is enabling continued abuse.

    Just so pleased that this have been won and a healthy precedent has been set. Do wish that churches would refer to their Bibles occasionally though; if they’re that scared people won’t come to them because of a google-review, it means they have no positive impact on their community, because if they did, they wouldn’t have to worry about a few negative reviews. And you CAN reply professionally with humble apologies for bad service on those reviews- if a restaurant can do it, shouldn’t the local church have even more humility and grace to try?

  18. Update: Last week the attorney of the two defendants who were dismissed in the case early on received payment by my former pastor – somewhere around $17K.

    My attorney has not been paid yet. Her paperwork was filed after the judge’s ruling we received on July 26.