Since she was excommunicated from her Lutheran church four years ago, LaVonne Pfeil says that her life has been ruined.

“I lost my church, I lost my husband, lost my reputation, lost a lot of money,” said Pfeil, who’s 79 years old. “I can go to a grocery store. If people see me, they turn around with their cart. I used to know everybody. Now I have no friends.”

Shortly before he died in 2013, Pfeil’s husband, Henry, urged her to file a lawsuit against their former pastors and church, St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of Worthington. They accuse the church of defaming the couple with false accusations that have rippled throughout the farm town in southwestern Minnesota.

The guarantee of religious liberty in the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions have generally kept the courts out of ecclesiastical disputes. But the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear Pfeil’s argument that judges should have a role in sorting out what’s said in church if it damages someone’s reputation far beyond the congregation.

That prospect would be a “terrible and dangerous decision,” according to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which filed an amicus brief in the case: “Courts should not pry into the mind of a pastor with respect to his judgment that a member of his congregation sinned.”

The pastors named in Pfeil’s complaint, Tom Braun and Joe Behnke, have since left St. Matthew. They declined an interview request, but provided a joint statement through their attorney, William Davidson:

“We believe a civil court is not in a position to second-guess the internal decision that the church took in this case, and to do so would chill a church’s practice of its faith and the communications within a church between other members and the leaders of a church.”

Yet from Pfeil’s perspective, what happened at St. Matthew cannot be separated from its effect on the rest of her life.

Pfeil thinks the trouble began in the church kitchen during a funeral in 2010. Someone started swearing when coffee grounds got in the coffee, and the foul language was unfairly blamed on her, she said.

The conflict between the Pfeils and the pastors escalated. The church accused the Pfeils of slandering and trying to discredit the pastors, court records show. Then, in August 2011, the Pfeils were excommunicated.

“The discipline that ultimately was undertaken was done so reluctantly and after many different attempts to discuss the matter with the Pfeils, and after many, many attempts at reconciliation,” the pastors said in their statement to the Star Tribune.

The following month, 89 members of the church gathered to rule on the action. At the meeting, Braun read the charges: the Pfeils slandered him and other church leaders, and gossiped about them. They engaged in sinful behavior and prompted others to do so. They refused to repent, leaving the church no alternative to kicking them out.

Pfeil and her family denied all of those accusations, and asked for details on what was said and who said it. They were told such information was confidential.

They had a chance to appeal the excommunication in March 2012 before a panel of the synod. “During this hearing, Pastor Behnke alleged that the Pfeils had recently accused him of stealing money from St. Matthew,” according to court records. The synod panel upheld the discipline.

Her husband was devastated, and never recovered from the blow, Pfeil said. She said Henry made it clear he wanted to seek justice in a secular court. Their suit, filed in Nobles County, alleged the pastors and the church had defamed them, not the other way around. So far, they have lost at the district court and court of appeals, both of which cited a 1993 case in ruling that the courts had no authority to rule on questions of sin, Christian doctrine and other ecclesiastical matters.

On Sept. 9, Pfeil sat in the gallery while Minnesota’s highest court heard her attorney, Zorislav Leyderman, state his case. He agreed that some of Pfeil’s initial claims were probably off-limits for a secular court, but said the law still requires a hearing on some of them.

Justice David Stras sounded skeptical. “It really gives no breathing room to religious speech.” If Leyderman’s argument is correct, church leaders will feel reluctant to go into detail about why they’re meting out discipline for fear of getting sued for defamation, Stras said.

Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea promised a decision “in due course.”

Pfeil would not say how much she has spent pursuing her case, but felt it was the only way she could make her voice heard. “It takes a whole lifetime to gain a reputation, and five minutes to lose it.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.