An Iowa judge will now decide if the phrase "spirit of Satan" is basis for a slander suit after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in a dispute at a rural Iowa church.
On Oct. 20, the nation's highest court rejected a petition by the United Methodist Church in Iowa to dismiss the case. That move sends the two-year-old case back to a judge in rural Butler County, Iowa, for trial.
On its face, the case is a simple defamation suit, but church-state watchers say it could hold important precedent on how much a secular court can or should involve itself in internal church matters.
The case involves a 1999 letter written by a local church official about problems at a United Methodist church in Shell Rock, Iowa, population 1,298. Appealing for an end to divisions, District Superintendent Gerald Swinton noted that the "spirit of Satan" was at work in the congregation.
"Folks, when is enough, enough? When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tear ing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you?" Swinton wrote.
The person at the center of the controversy, parishioner Jane Kliebenstein, said she was defamed by the letter because it falsely attacked her "integrity and moral character. …