Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Defamation Suit Against Minister Not Necessarily Barred By Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

Lippard v. Holleman, (NC App., May 2, 2017) is a case in which plaintiff Kim Lippard who was fired as church pianist and vocalist in a Baptist church where she had served for 34 years sued the church's senior minister and its minister of music for defamation. Her husband also sued. Kim's firing ultimately went through the board of deacons, the church's personnel committee and then was referred to a meeting of the entire congregation.  It was alleged, among other charges, that at the meeting the senior minister read a "twenty page diatribe" against Kim and her husband.  In the case, the court of appeals vacated the trial court's dismissal of the suit, in part on procedural grounds.  But the court also refused to conclude that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine required dismissal of the suit, saying in part:
Our courts have not yet considered whether a statement issued by a religious leader or made from the pulpit creates an actionable defamation claim capable of adjudication under neutral principles of tort law. However, several federal courts and out-of-state courts have confronted this question and concluded the First Amendment does not create a categorical bar to such defamation claims....
This line between an ecclesiastical and a secular dispute can be difficult to discern, and requires an intensive inquiry into the relevant facts and applicable laws. Defamation and religious questions are legally contextual. Libel may sometimes cloak itself in religious terminology, but that would not prevent civil adjudication of a claim.