The court did not err in sustaining the general demurrers to the petition.
This is a suit for damages for $5,000, filed by Barney W. Crosby (herein after called the plaintiff) against Frank T. Lee and E. R. Dowling individually, and as clerk and moderator, respectively, (hereinafter called the defendants) of the Alapaha River Primitive Baptist Association. The gist of the cause of action is set out in paragraph 5 of the petition, which alleges that the defendants have wilfully defamed the name of the plaintiff by a writing, leaded "Circular Letter" written by the defendant, Frank T. Lee, as clerk, which letter appears in the minutes of the 110th annual session of the Alapaha River Primitive Baptist Association. The letter reads: "Dear brethren and sisters in the Lord: As you know a man was elected to write a Circular Letter at the last Association. At that time he was minuted as Elder B. W. Crosby, but by his many transgressions through many years, and by the destruction wrought by his crafty hands, and the innocent blood he has shed, it is revealed that as the Lord said in His holy word, a man's sins will find him out. Therefore, the duty has been shifted to another, who is clay of the same lump, and flesh filled with the same ungodly principles, who can do no better than the above named, except granted the guiding hand of mercy. But speaking of mercy, had it not been for mercy, all would have been as the expelled man, Crosby, for the Association and her leader has been the deadly aim of some of the deceitful men that have been bound and cast into prison for their wrongs, and the Lord said, they would not come out until they paid the very last mite. But brethren, beware of these men, and their followers. Some are seeking to break the common prison and turn this bunch of gangsters back on the Association, but to them that have felt the afflicting hand of the men such as were expelled about six months ago, namely, John Boone, Barney Crosby, P. D. Mercer, Oliver Lewis, and so on down amongst others expelled for the same purpose of relieving the church of the hand of tyranny that had been forced on some of the churches by these and many other ungodly men when the church agreed at the annual meeting at Emmaus in April, 1952, to expel the above named for six months so the church could travel unmolested by them for a season, there arose a howl from them. It can't be proved by the scripture, this month stuff won't do, but to those who are enlightened, they may see these wrong men as Edomites. Now, some, or we might say many have said, If you can show me this six month stuff in the Bible, we will have it. Well, if they will let us hand it to them. I Kings, 11; 15; 16. 'For it came to pass when David was in Edom, and Joab the captain of the hosts was gone up to bury the slain after he had smitten every male in Edom for six months did Joab remain there with all Israel until he had cut off every male in Edom.' Now let's look to a greater Captain of the host of Israel than Joab, and we may see this glorious Captain, Jesus who has waived His banner over the Association and kept the males of the Edomites from lying in the hearts of Israel for the past six months; and we hope the begetting of this principle of bastardy has ceased for a little while.
Elder E. R. Dowling,
Moderator, Frank T. Lee, Clerk."
There is a further allegation in paragraph 6 that the defendant Dowling consented to the writing of the letter. In paragraph 7 it is alleged that none of the statements contained in the letter were true, and the defendants knew they were false; that the statements were maliciously and wilfully made for the purpose and intent to injure the plaintiff, and for no other purpose. In paragraph 8 it is alleged that both defendants in sermons preached at Enon Primitive Baptist Church, Pierce County, Georgia, stated that each and every fact contained in the publication was true, and that the defendants would continue to state the facts to be true. In paragraph 9 it is alleged that such oral statements made by the defendants were known by them to be false and were made by the defendants maliciously and wilfully for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff. In paragraph 10 it is alleged that the conduct and acts on the part of the defendants have injured the plaintiff in his good name, reputation, fame, and credit, and exposed him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule among all of his neighbors and other worthy citizens of Pierce County, Georgia, and elsewhere where the plaintiff is known, in the sum for which suit is brought. In paragraph 11 it is alleged that such writing and oral remarks were made wilfully and fraudulently by the defendants, and that plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages. In paragraph 12 it is alleged that the defendants have stated that they will continue to make such remarks either orally or written in the future, and that the defendants should be both temporarily and permanently enjoined from making oral defamation of the plaintiff's good name.
The plaintiff presented his petition to the Judge of Pierce County Superior Court, and the petition was signed, and by order was referred to Superior Court Judge George R. Lilly of Quitman, Georgia. On the day set for hearing Judge Lilly entertained a demurrer to the petition, the defendants demurring generally on the grounds: (1) that the petition set forth no cause of action against the defendants; (2) that the plaintiff was not entitled to any equitable relief; (3) that the petition shows that the petitioner desired the court of equity to interfere with the internal affairs of a religious organization where no property rights were involved; (4) that the petition is defective generally because it shows that the issue in said case is a case of doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law, rule or custom affecting a church, and that the superior court had no jurisdiction to interfere in such matter; (5) that the petition shows on its face that it is an internal matter of a church affecting the spiritual and personal matters among the members of the Primitive Baptist Church, and that a majority of said church members have acted with respect to the discipline of a member, the ruling of the church being made on the highest authority of the church, and the superior court cannot disturb, alter, or interfere with the judgment of the said church; (6) that the petition shows on its face that it is a matter affecting the doctrine and discipline of a member or members of said church, and said petition does not attach a copy of the decorum or by-laws of said church, and is therefore fatally defective; (7) that the said petition should be stricken on the ground that it shows on its face that the communications of which complaint is made were among church members in regard to discipline of a member or members of the church, that such matters were in the official organizational and administrative functions of the church, and said communications under the facts alleged were privileged and contained no basis for any relief in said court.
There were certain special demurrers which the court did not pass on. The court sustained the general demurrers. The plaintiff excepted to that ruling and assigns error here.
We have set forth somewhat in detail the allegations of the petition and have set forth verbatim the alleged libelous written document, which is the gist of the petition before us. We have also set forth somewhat in detail the general demurrers to the petition which the court sustained and dismissed the petition. The plaintiff relies on the decision of Swafford v. Keaton, 23 Ga. App. 238 (98 S. E. 122). We have studied that case carefully under its facts and compared it with the allegations of fact in the instant petition. It is our considered opinion that the decision in that case is no authority for the contention of the plaintiff that the court erred in overruling the demurrers in the instant case. The suit in that case was an action between individuals in a Primitive Baptist Church concerning a debt, whereas in the instant case the gist of the action is against the Association of Churches, the Alapaha River Primitive Baptist Association, for expelling a pastor and certain of his following on a question of doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law, and rule or custom affecting such association of churches. As we see it, there is nothing in the allegations of the petition to show that any civil rights which the plaintiff is entitled to enjoy under the Constitution of this State were violated. There is no crime set forth and no statement of a violation of the plaintiff's rights by the church in any form or manner whatsoever. The use of the words "bastardy" and the like cannot in any sense be interpreted, under the whole petition, as having reference to any violation of our civil law. A similar interpretation is to be given to the expression, "and the innocent blood he has sled." This expression has no reference whatsoever to the actual shedding of blood. It is true that the plaintiff in his petition seeks to tie his cause of action into the lab of the State, by suing individually and joining the Alapaha River Primitive Baptist Association with the individual in an effort to sustain his cause of action. Under our civil law it is but a misjoinder of causes of action and of parties. Be this as it may, there is nothing in the petition to show that any cause of action in favor of the plaintiff is set out. Our State Constitution provides in article I, section I, par. XII (Code, Ann., 2-112), as follows: "All men have the natural and inalienable right to worship God, each according to the dictates of his own conscience, and no human authority should, in any case, control or interfere with such right of conscience."
Under the allegations of the petition, the communications shown are privileged and were made in the course of expulsion proceedings in connection with the plaintiff in his church affiliations with the Alapaha River Primitive Baptist Association. The courts in this State have consistently refused to interfere in any internal church affairs. This is not only true as to Primitive Baptist Church Associations, but it is also true with reference to all other denominations. See Smith v. Kelly, 208 Ga. 233
(65 S. E. 2d 795); Edwards v. Thomas, 204 Ga. 766
(51 S. E. 2d 855). In Stewart v. Jarriel, 206 Ga. 855
(59 S. E. 2d 368), the Supreme Court said: "All questions relating to the faith and practice of the church and of its members belongs to the church judicatories to which the members have voluntarily subjected themselves, since when a person becomes a member of a church, he does so upon the condition of submission to its ecclesiastical jurisdiction and however much he may be dissatisfied with the exercise of that jurisdiction, he has no right to invoke the supervisory power of a civil court so long as none of his civil rights are involved. So long as a professed creed is not subversive of the peace and good order of society, it is not within the province of any department of the government to settle differences in creeds or determine what ought or ought not to be a fundamental of religious belief."
The court did net err in sustaining the general demurrers and in dismissing the petition.
TOWNSEND, J., concurring specially. I concur in the judgment of affirmance, but do not agree that the plaintiff here was "suing individually and joining the Alpaha River Primitive Baptist Association with the individual in an effort to sustain his cause of action." The church association not being alleged to be an individual, partnership, or corporation, could not be a party defendant. Barbour v. Albany Lodge, No. 24, F & A.M., 73 Ga. 474; Knox v. Greenfield's Estate, 7 Ga. App. 305 (66 S. E. 805). There are no allegations which charge the defendants with any of the acts alleged so as to make it appear that they were not acting as officers of the church in writing, agreeing to, or circularizing among the membership the letter of which complaint is made. The petition fails to set up the rules of church procedure followed by this group or to make it appear that the publication of the letter was not a proper, or even a mandatory, function of the defendants in their capacity as church officers, for which reason it is clear that no individual liability is alleged against the defendants, either for the commission of acts in an individual, rather than an official capacity (as was the case in Swafford v. Keaton, 23 Ga. App. 238, 98 S. E. 122), or for individual liability in exceeding the authority granted them by the church in the commission of such acts.
I am authorized to say that Carlisle, J., joins in this special concurrence.