The Beaverton Grace Bible Church have filed a lawsuit against a former member after she posted unfavorable reviews of the church online. Pastor Charles O'Neal is suing mother and daughter for describing the church as "creepy" and "cult-like."
According to KATU.com, Julie Anne Smith, her daughter and three other online commenters are facing a $500,000 defamation claim. Pastor O'Neal said he brought defamation charges because their online reviews of the church included harmful expressions such as "cult," "creepy," and "spiritual abuse."
Smith was a member of the church until a few years ago. Q13fox.com reports that Smith, who says that "the story of spiritual abuse [in the church] needs to be told," describes an occasion in which the pastor called on church elders to search closets of female church members for clothes that were too "revealing.".
According to KATU.com, Smith said she and her family were shunned by members after leaving the church a few years ago. The Blaze reports Smith said: “If I went to Costco or any place in town, if I ran into somebody, they would turn their heads and walk the other way. All we did was asked questions. We just raised concerns. There’s no sin in that.”
She then began writing Google and DEX reviews of the church to express her feelings. KATU.com reports she said: "I thought, I'm just going to post a review. We do it with restaurants and hotels and whatnot, and I thought, why not do it with this church?"
According to The Huffington Post, Smith also created a blog called "Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors".
The Blaze reports Smith's original review posted on her blog read:
"Although this church touts to be 'Beaverton Grace Bible,' the 'grace' word is lacking. This is more of a legalistic church where if you don’t do things their way (which is the ;only' way), you will have challenges. Beaverton Grace is famous for shunning former members/attendees without giving an explanation or following Biblical principles on disagreements. You will be fine in this church if you never question the elders or pastor. Their emphasis is heavy on evangelism to the extent that you get the feeling if you do not regularly evangelize 'their way.' you are not a true Christian."
According to The Inquistr, Smith also wrote:
"What we had was indoctrination...That is how cult leaders work... Don’t waste your precious lives and relationships being held emotionally/spiritually captive by this so-called church... This is a very destructive and disturbing ‘church.’ … The exra-Biblical legalistic teaching is wrong. The gossip/slander, disclosure of what goes on in private counseling sessions, sex offenders have free reign in childrens’ [sic] areas with no disclosure to parents. … This is not a safe place.”
Smith received the lawsuit days after the blog went live in February. Smith's blog contains a scanned copy of the complaint. The complaint referred to the following allegedly defamatory statements about the church Smith wrote:
"Sept. 29, 2011:
"You will be fine at this church if you never question the elders or the pastor."
Jan. 5, 2012:
"What we had was indoctrination... That is how cult leaders work. Don't waste your precious lives and relationships by being held emotionally/spiritually captive at this so-called church."
Jan. 9, 2012:
"How can she forget that her own beloved pastor knew about a sex offender in the church who had access to the nursery and children on a weekly basis and did not have any safeguards in place."KATU.com reports Smith's attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Hearing of the motion is scheduled for May 21. The Huffington Post reports that Smith's attorney said she does not think that O'Neal has a strong case against her client. The attorney said: "It would be extremely difficult to determine that the wording or posting caused that tremendous $500,000 worth of damage... It just didn't."
Smith argues that online reviews and blogs are protected under right of free speech. KATU.com reports she said: "What somebody does in the church is one thing, but when you get out into society we have the right to free speech, and it may not be what people want to hear, but we absolutely have that right. 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... And he's not my pastor anymore. He does not have that right to keep people from talking."