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Oregon mom sued by church over online criticism

An Oregon pastor, upset with online comments made by former church members, sues four former parishioners, seeking $500,000 for defamation. KGW's Wayne Havrelly reports.

An Oregon mother of seven is being sued for defamation by her former church over critical comments she made online.

Julie Anne Smith, a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her children, said church members began shunning her and her family after they left Beaverton Grace Bible Church almost four years ago.

She took to the Web in October 2009 to air her concerns about the church's practices on Google reviews, but said her comments kept being pushed down by other church members' more recent reviews. So in February of this year, Smith launched a blog called Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors to counteract what she called the "cat and mouse game" on Google.

"My primary issue was to discuss spiritual abuse in the church,” Smith told msnbc.com. “In essence, the legal suit is [O'Neal's] attempt of continuing that spiritual abuse.”

But days after Smith launched her blog, pastor Charles O'Neal filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Smith, her daughter and three other former church members, claiming some of the comments posted online amounted to defamation. O'Neal has been the pastor of the church for 13 years.

"We have not gone hastily to court," O'Neal said in a statement released to msnbc.com. "For three and a half years this group has been engaged in a public, church to church, and World Wide Web defamation, showing their willingness to discredit God, harm the church, harm wives, harm children, and harm the testimony of Christ's Gospel."

"It is BGBC's firm conviction that this cannot continue," he added.

In reaction to O'Neal's lawsuit, Smith's attorney filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss the suit. The motion, which is meant to protect individuals sued for exercising their constitutionally protected rights, will go before a judge on May 21.

Defamation lawsuits triggered by online comments are not unusual, but they typically involve businesses, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Aden Fine told msnbc.com.

"It’s very clear, especially in the age of the Internet, that companies don’t like to be criticized and don’t want the world to see this criticism, and so many companies have been very aggressive about suing people for criticizing them," Fine said.

"The result will be that people will be afraid of posting critical comments on the Internet," he said, adding that he expects these kinds of lawsuits to happen more even frequently in the future.

Smith, who used to play piano at the Beaverton church, said she and her family were asked to leave the congregation in November 2008, but it was almost a year before she took her grievances online. Church leaders, however, deny ever asking the Smiths to leave and claim her family left of their own accord.

“When you’re in a cult or a spiritually abusive place, your brain takes a while to process, to uncover all of that stuff that was going on, so I was kinda stewing,” she said. "Things were coming clear to me.”

Smith said the shunning by church members was so extreme that one of them even skidded out of a grocery parking lot to avoid her. "They treat you worse than a stranger," she said. "It just seems so cruel.”

She said her eldest daughter, Hannah, even left home about 4.5 years ago because she no longer wanted anything to do with the church. "My daughter willingly gave up many things to protect her sanity and leave the place that was emotionally killing her," Smith wrote on her blog.

Smith said she tried calling and emailing the church to resolve the conflict, but received no response.

The decision to eventually start posting reviews on Google came “out of desperation.”

"The mama bear in me came out," she said.

According to the complaint filed by the pastor, the defamatory statements included claims that O'Neal had "chosen to mislead the congregation" and "destroy relationships." Other messages quoted in the filing say the pastor is an example of "narcissism in the pulpit," and the church is "creepy" and uses "control tactics" for "spiritual abuse."

"You will be fine at this church if you never question the elders or pastor," the filing quotes another statement as saying.

Other comments Smith reportedly posted online state the church is "very destructive and disturbing."

"Leaders of cults convince their people that their church is the only true place to be..." and "turn a blind eye to known sex offenders in the church," Smith reportedly posted on Jan. 4.

O'Neal's attorney told msnbc.com in an email that the latter claim is "the second worst thing that any pastor can be accused of."

Court documents revealed the sex offender claim refers to a mentally disabled teenage church member who allegedly touched one of his sisters inappropriately. His family brought the matter up with the pastor, who said the boy "was never again allowed in the church nursery and never allowed to be alone in the company of children around the church.”

Smith said some of her statements were taken out of context in the filing, but she said she stands by everything she wrote.

Abuse 'unfounded'
Court filings state that another defendant, Meaghan Varela, allegedly made accusations of child abuse against the pastor, which led to a December 2008 visit from the Oregon Department of Human Services. The social worker informed O'Neal's daughter that someone also reported that pornography was being distributed to children at church.

"The allegations of child abuse filed by Meaghan Varela were extremely painful to my family," O'Neal's daughter said in a statement.

The DHS concluded that the child abuse allegations were "unfounded," court papers say.

ACLU's Fine said the court will look at whether the defendants' statements qualify as opinions or assertions of fact. Opinions are protected under free speech law.

Smith told msnbc.com she received messages of support from church members, and some told her they would like to post online about their own concerns but they're afraid.

"They've seen what happened to me," Smith said. "[O'Neal] sued me."

“He’s trying to bully people," she added.

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