After the “Biblically prescribed pathway to reconciliation” failed, the senior minister at a Baptist church in Iredell County allegedly took to the pulpit and delivered a trash-talking sermon targeting the overworked church pianist and her deacon husband.
The drama at Diamond Hill Baptist Church is said to have started with pianist Kim Lippard’s request for a more flexible schedule and allegedly degraded to Larry Holleman, the senior minister, calling her husband a liar and attempting to have the Lippards blackballed from the church.
Apparently unwilling to turn the other cheek, Kim and Barry Lippard brought a defamation suit against the church, Holleman, and the minister of music, Alan Hix. Now their case, which the state Court of Appeals resurrected in a recent unpublished opinion, could answer a question of first impression centered on whether religious leaders can be sued for defamation based on what they said at the pulpit.
Charlotte lawyer Julian Wright of Robinson Bradshaw, who had an appellate case last year in which the First Amendment collided with “ecclesiastical matters,” and the latter trumped at the Court of Appeals, said he was initially “stunned” when he read about the Lippards’ suit being allowed to go forward.
But he noted that the court’s order was centered not so much on a First Amendment analysis, which has been left up to the trial court on remand, as it was the fact that one lower court judge had overruled another’s order.
Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner originally denied the ministers’ motion to dismiss the Lippards’ defamation claim, though she tossed the couple’s claim that the church had engaged in ultra vires activity. But Judge Martin McGee subsequently dismissed the Lippards’ entire complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeals held May 2 that McGee’s order “violated the ‘well-established rule’ that no appeal lies from one superior court judge to another.” Judge Robert Hunter, who wrote the opinion, even gave the rule a name: the Calloway rule, a nod to the state Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Calloway v. Ford Motor Co.
Hunter went on to note that the Lippards’ “complaint contains sufficient facts to state a claim for defamation which is outside the ecclesiastical boundary line of the First Amendment.” But he left it up to the trial court to decide whether that line is violated “if and when the parties come forward with a forecast of evidence to support a motion for summary judgment.”
Wright is skeptical of the Lippards’ chances as they plod ahead: “It’s going to be really hard for me to get my hands around the idea that what the pastor says at the pulpit to the congregation isn’t so inherently religious that the court’s going to have to intervene and decide whether portions of a sermon are appropriate or not.”
Then again, he added: “But I don’t sit on the Court of Appeals, Judge Hunter does.”
And on the third day, Hunter created the Calloway rule.