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Court Orders New Trial in Church Fornication Lawsuit

January 18, 1989

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a $390,000 judgment won by a woman who was publicly branded by her church for having sex outside of marriage.

But the court left open the possibility that the woman could recover damages for actions taken by church elders after she sought to withdraw from membership in the church.

The Oklahoma court ruled Marian Guinn could not recover for any civil wrongs committed against her by church elders while she was still a member of the Collinsville Church of Christ.

Justice Marian Opala wrote the majority opinion sending the case back for a new trial. Four other justices concurred, two dissented and two others dissented in part.

Opala’s opinion held that the First Amendment did not protect church elders from potential liability for acts that occurred after the woman withdrew her church membership.

The decision said it could be found that the elders went ″beyond the bounds of decency″ by going against the woman’s wishes and announcing to the congregation the woman’s ″sin of fornication″ when she declined to publicly repent.

″We hence hold there is competent evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that the elders had intended to inflict emotional harm on parishioner,″ the opinion said.

Elders of the Collinsville church, located north of Tulsa in northeast Oklahoma, filed the appeal after a Tulsa County jury in March 1984 awarded Ms. Guinn $205,000 actual damages and $185,000 punitive damages.

The registered nurse and divorced mother of four sued in 1981, when elders of the church disclosed she had committed the ″sin of fornication.″

The church argued elders had a right, outlined in the Bible, to discipline members.

The elders were identified in the Supreme Court ruling as Ron Whitten, Ted Moody and Allen Cash.

The court said the woman had implored the elders in a letter not to mention her name in church, except to say she had withdrawn from membership.

The elders told the woman that withdrawing from the church was not possible and could not halt disciplinary action against her.

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