Victory for Former Churchgoer Who Wrote Negative Reviews About Her Church Online

Remember Julie Anne Smith? She’s the mother who once attended Beaverton Grace Bible Church in Oregon, but after she left, the other church members shunned her, seemingly at the behest of the pastor. (Strange, given that she was still a Christian.)

Turned out she wasn’t alone. So she began a blog called “Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors.” And she left some 1-star reviews of the church online.

In true form, Pastor Charles (Chuck) O’Neal responded by suing her for $500,000, claiming “defamation.”

Julie Anne Smith (in green) in court with Pastor Chuck O’Neal (second from right). (via KATU.com)

… the pastor claims in the lawsuit he filed that her words, “creepy,” “cult,” “control tactics,” and “spiritual abuse,” are defamation.

The lawsuit didn’t just target Smith. Her daughter and three other commenters are also being sued.

“He can say what he wants in the church and say, don’t talk about this or don’t talk about that, or don’t talk to this person, but when you’re out in the civil world, you don’t do that anymore,” Smith said. “And he’s not my pastor anymore. He does not have that right to keep people from talking.”

The Smiths filed a special free speech motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It goes before a judge later this month.

That all took place back in May.

As of yesterday, there’s a very happy update: All charges against Julie Anne have been dismissed!

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. The court further finds that plaintiff has not met the burden of presenting substantial evidence the defendant’s statements are defamatory.

It’s possible the church could appeal… if they want to lose even more money down the line.

This is a win for free speech advocates everywhere:

“This case was dismissed under Oregon’s anti-SLAPP law” said Linda Williams, an attorney for the defendants. “This is a powerful tool to throw out claims which cannot ever succeed because they seek to squelch speech protected by the First Amendment and Oregon Constitution.”

“SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” That’s a lawsuit that aims to silence somebody who you disagree with by burdening them with legal woes.

“(O’Neal) has the right to govern his congregation in the manner in which he chooses, and defendant Julie Anne Smith is authorized by law to express her disagreement with his performance of those activities,” Fun wrote in the ruling dismissing the case.

“This is what America is all about,” Smith told KATU after an earlier hearing. “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.”

The Streisand Effect was in full force here.

The church’s Google Plus page — with 892 reviews — now has an overall score of 0 out of 30 (not a typo).

And it has 1 out of 5 stars at DexKnows (an average of the 112 reviews there). Same with Yelp, though there’s only one review there.

Meanwhile, “Pastor Chuck” has a message for anyone who visits his website:

It has been my privilege to pastor Beaverton Grace Bible Church for over twelve years. As an American patriot and a Christian pastor I staunchly support our First Amendment rights. As a husband, a father, and a pastor I stand by my right and the right of every American citizen to defend themselves, their families, their churches, their secular organizations, and their businesses from World Wide Web Internet assaults consisting of false criminal accusations and character assassination of the worst kind.

He supports the First Amendment… unless someone says something he doesn’t like. Got it.

Congratulations to Julie Anne for speaking out against an awful place and an awful pastor. Maybe some of the current churchgoers will come to their senses and get the hell out of there, too.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • MegaZeusThor

    “has not met the burden of presenting substantial evidence”

    What is this evidence and burden of proof that you speak of? I assure you, as church, we are exempt from such notions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.fecher Scott Fecher

    No, you are not.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Recalibrate your snark meter. 

  • Isilzha

    No kidding!  Obvious snark was obvious!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001627228091 Alexander Ryan

    Is it just me or does it seem way too many religious people don’t understand how the law works? Or maybe they think the only laws they should be following are the laws of God?

  • NewAtheist

    That’s exactly what they think! (I know, I used to be one.) As long as they follow god’s law, they are squared away for a penthouse in heaven… which means who cares what they do here… BUT that sounds like I’m bitter & bashing religion. Really, I don’t care what god you profess to follow. But since we live in America (my apologies to those commentors here from other countries for the exclusion), I just want the Constitution followed. Why is that so hard?

  • Armanaeon1

    That is weird..  A CHRISTIAN PASTOR sues a sister? or A CHRISTIAN SISTER tries to payback and creates a blog to talk negative about the church? WOW. The true Christian way would have been the sister privately talking to the pastor about any issue she had, and the pastor , if not arrogant, would have accepted his mistakes. But then again it is also good to warn the world about an apostate. 

  • Isilzha

    There’s so much fail in your post that I don’t know even where to start.

    1)  It’s not weird. 

    2) Xian pastors aren’t special.  They’re human and usually the worst of the lot because it takes more than a bit of hubris to make a living saying you know the mind of god.

    3)  Obviously this…pastor…felt he had the right to treatsome as his subject and make his crap affect her outside of church.  She has the right to tell the world about it.

    4)  Obviously this…pastor…IS an arrogant SOB.  No amounting of a “Sister” talking to him wouldn’t have cured that.

    5)  Who exactly is the apostate here?  And what does that even mean when it’s all a bunch of bull crap anyway?

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson
  • Julie Anne

    The pastor refused to communicate.  A local pastor offered to mediate.  He refused mediation.  He was not willing to work anything out.  Yet he was willing to break families and friends up by ridiculous shunning  practices.  

  • Justin meade

    Not to mention that in 1 Corinthians 6: 1-11 Paul expressly states that Christians must not sue Christians in public court. Oops, mentioned it. Sorry, ex-evangelical preacher in New Zealand and these things get stuck in your head.. That particular church states on it’s website that they believe in the ‘..infallible, inerrant Word Of God’. Well go figure. Here’s the scripture verses in question:

    “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?  Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?  Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!  Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church?  I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?  Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.  Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

  • Cjayala

    Countersue and collect back the attorney’s fees!!!!!

  • Aaronlane

     Oregon’s anti-SLAPP statute takes that into account. She was awarded about $16,000 for her fees.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Next question: is she still a Christian?

  • Stev84

    Yes, very much so. It’s obvious from her blog where she quotes Bible verses all the time.

  • Julie Anne Smith

    Yes, I am still a Christian.  My faith is stronger than ever despite this horrible experience.

  • Julie Anne

    There were 5 defendants.  2 of the defendants were awarded around $16K.  The total bill could be over $50K because my portion of the lawsuit was quite wordy.  I had something close to 20 defamatory phrases and my attorney needed to defend each one.

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    Oregon’s law needs to be nation-wide… might put an end to Scientologists litigating the shit out of apostates.

  • houndies

    good for her! i had a similar incident at a church i once went to only i was on the receiving end of the rumors and gossip. it was also the last church i ever went to. i was so tempted to file suit against more than one member for slander and defamation of character. although i had good evidence, my attorney advised me to let it go because of cost and because people who say they support you on the one hand, quickly swap horses when the actual sh*t hits the fan. it was a messy and terrible situation that proved to me that it’s the fattest checkbook that runs the church and that xtians are a fickle bunch of backstabbers that make rabid hyenas look friendly.

  • Isilzha

    [insert: “but they weren’t REAL christians” crap here]

    [insert: “REAL christians are X and do Y” and ignore all evidence to the contrary here]

  • houndies

    true that!

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    It seems that it would be almost impossible to decide a libel case against someone speaking against a pastor since the pastor’s job is to perpetuate things that people before him made-up (scripture and such). The correct decision was to throw the case out. Stated bluntly, pastors are professional liars. Stated more kindly, pastors are professional story-tellers.

  • edje54

    To quote the Pirate Bride, “You keep citing the first amendment.  I do not think it means what you think it means”

  • The Other Weirdo

     +1 for Pirate Princess Bride.

  • Edje54

    yes- Princess Bride.  I must have had a brain fart somewhere between head and keyboard

  • Aaronlane

    Mike D. is right, we do need a nationwide anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law. About 28 states now have these statutes, with Oregon and California having among the strongest with the best remedies.

    Among these remedies not mentioned in the post: It allows the plaintiff to recover costs and legal fees. In this case the church had to cough up about $16,000 for suing Ms. Smith.

  • Julie Anne

    He will have to cough up far more than that.  That amount was awarded for the two defendants who were dismissed early on.  He will also need to pay attorney and court fees for my daughter, Meaghan, and me.  That dollar figure will easily double.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

    Ah, it’s good to be an Oregonian.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    892 reviews?  Have that many people ever passed through the doors of this church during its entire existence?

  • kaydenpat

    What a way to reach out to former members — sue them if they say something negative about your church!  Sounds like a winning strategy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    does this now qualify as a HITCH-SLAPP then?

    happy days.