JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Baptist pastor and lawmaker Doug Richey has introduced a bill in the Missouri House of Representatives that, if passed and signed into law, will empower churches and other nonprofits in the state to disclose credible allegations of sexual abuse without fear of civil liability.
Richey, a state representative and pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church, Excelsior Springs, called Missouri House Bill 1446 (HB 1446) a bipartisan bill that should make its way to the governor’s desk for a signature with very little opposition, if any.
However, he expressed concern that, if the COVID-19 outbreak continues to slow down business at the Missouri Capitol, the legislature may not have time to approve the bill before this session ends. The Capitol was shut down for a 10-day period, beginning March 20, after one member of the House tested positive for COVID-19.
Richey, however, expects that the bill will pass through the Missouri House Judiciary Committee, which has already heard testimony on the bill, as soon as business resumes at the Capitol.
According to Kansas City attorney Jonathan Whitehead, HB 1446 is modelled after and improves upon Texas House Bill 4345, which was signed into law last year.
“HB 1446 represents a careful balance between the interests of the public in protecting against sexual predation, the interests of churches and charities who wish to tell the truth, and the interests of individuals who wish to be free from malicious misrepresentation,” Whitehead, who is a member of Abundant Life Church, Lee’s Summit, said while testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, March 10.
All too often, Whitehead said, some churches and other nonprofit organizations have failed to report credible suspicions of sexual predation by former employees because of fear that they’ll find themselves in a defamation lawsuit. Aware of this reality, sexual predators leave churches when suspicions of abuse come to light – only to repeat their abusive behavior in another church or ministry.
“Churches and charities in Missouri … do not feel the legal freedom to tell the truth to each other,” Whitehead said.
According to HB 1446, Whitehead added, “a speaker can still be held liable for statements they know to be false, or statements made in reckless disregard of the truth” – a legal standard known as “actual malice.”
But, if passed into law, HB 1446 will enable churches to speak the truth without fear of reprisal – and it will make it harder for sexual predators to victimize churches and their members.