The First Amendment prohibits courts from hearing defamation claims when they involve an internal religious dispute regarding ecclesiastical matters, a divided North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled in a case of first impression, affirming a ruling in favor of a church’s pastor and music director.
Kim and Barry Lippard were members of Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Statesville, where Kim served as church pianist and vocalist. Larry Holleman was DHBC’s pastor and Alan Hix served as minister of music.
In 2012, Kim and Hix had a disagreement after a solo originally assigned to Kim was reassigned to another choir member. Holleman began meeting with Kim and Hix to facilitate a reconciliation between them, but after several unsuccessful meetings, the DHBC deacons voted to recommend Kim’s dismissal.
The personnel committee similarly voted to recommend her dismissal, and at a churchwide meeting, Holleman delivered a sermon on the motion to terminate, repeatedly stating that Kim’s dismissal arose from her “unwillingness to commit” to the DHBC’s reconciliation process. Printed copies of the sermon were provided to the congregation as well.
Kim remained in her position after the congregation voted against her dismissal, but according to a lawsuit subsequently filed by the Lippards, Holleman continued to preach against them, and both he and Hix defamed them to other members of the DHBC verbally, in emails and in letters.
The following year, Kim resigned her position at DHBC, and the Lippards began attending another church before filing their defamation lawsuit against Holleman and Hix.
Holleman and Hix moved for summary judgment, arguing that the First Amendment barred the Lippards’ claims because inquiry into the truth or falsity of the challenged statements would require consideration of an internal religious dispute regarding ecclesiastical matters. Iredell County Superior Court Judge Mark E. Klass granted the motion, and the Lippards appealed, contending that their claims didn’t require a court to weigh church doctrine because they were based upon the defendants’ conduct in carrying on reconciliation proceedings, not the proceeding itself.
Avoiding ecclesiastical entanglement
But Judge Hunter Murphy, writing for the court’s majority in a May 19 decision, disagreed, affirming the ruling in favor of Holleman and Hix.
“We hold that determining the truth or falsity of Defendants’ alleged defamatory statements—where the content of those statements concerns whether Plaintiffs complied with DHBC’s practices—would require us to interpret or weigh ecclesiastical matters, an inquiry not permitted by the First Amendment,” he wrote.
The First Amendment prohibits courts from becoming entangled in ecclesiastical matters, and so they have no jurisdiction over disputes which require an examination of religious doctrine and practice in order to resolve the matters at issue, but whether resolution of a defamation claim would require courts to interpret or weigh church doctrine was a question of first impression for the appellate court.
“Defamation claims present a unique challenge under this doctrine because, in North Carolina, as in other states, these claims include as an essential element the falsity of the defendant’s alleged statements,” Murphy wrote. Adding to the challenge was the breadth of “ecclesiastical matters,” which include doctrine and practice and “go beyond following church scripture or texts.”
“Statements made during religious disputes can include a religion’s internal customs, practices, beliefs, faith, theology, morality, membership, organization, governance, rules, law, discipline and degree of control between members,” Murphy wrote. “The nature of speech, and alleged defamatory statements in particular, more easily touch upon these subjects than negligence or property claims.”
Entertaining defamation claims in this context would task courts with consideration of whether a statement is true or false without examining or inquiring into ecclesiastical matters or church doctrine—an almost insurmountable hurdle to having such a case heard, the majority concluded.
Ecclesiastical matters or church doctrine “permeate much of a religion’s internal communications, and so it will be a rare occurrence when a religion’s internal statements are purely secular,” Murphy wrote. “We must remain cautious of deciding the truth or falsity of a religion’s internal communications because doing so risks chilling the religion’s ‘associational conduct’ or putting our pen’s power ‘behind a particular religious faction.’”
An unconstitutional examination
The statements at issue—a letter from Holleman to Kim later sent to the DHBC’s congregation, a sermon delivered to the congregation by Holleman, the language on the ballot disseminated to the DHBC congregation, communications by Hix about the Lippards via email and in conversations with congregants, and comments made by Holleman to in letters and an email—were not the sort of rare occurrence that allowed the court to avoid ecclesiastical entanglement, the majority found.
For example, in the letter from Holleman to Kim later sent to the congregation, Holleman stated that he had posed six questions drawn from Ephesians 4, asking her to admit her failure to accept obedience to the scriptures with regard to the reconciliation attempts.
“What is apparent from the 13 November letter is that the acknowledgement of personal responsibility Holleman refers to is acknowledgement in the context of reconciliation between persons under biblical doctrine as DHBC understands it,” Murphy wrote. “Courts cannot undertake such an inquiry.”
Determining whether Kim’s conduct constituted an “acknowledge[ment] of personal responsibility” under these conditions would require the court to interpret religious doctrine, he said.
“To determine the truth or falsity of that statement, the trial court would have to determine (1) what Mrs. Lippard’s ‘failures’ were, in biblical context, and (2) whether Mrs. Lippard’s conditional response to the questions asking her to admit failures based on the text of Ephesians 4 was sufficient under DHBC doctrine,” Murphy wrote. “We hold the ecclesiastical entanglement doctrine under the First Amendment prohibits this inquiry.”
Similar issues arose with the other communications, which would require the court to determine points of doctrine such as the meaning of “reconciliation,” DHBC’s internal discipline process and whether Kim was a “joyful participant in the ministry of the church.”
As all of the challenged statements would “unconstitutionally require examining or interpreting ecclesiastical matters or religious doctrine,” the court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Holleman and Hix.
Chief Judge Linda McGee dissented. The majority’s opinion “is at odds with precedent,” she wrote, and provides protection for religious bodies beyond what the First Amendment calls for.
Concord attorney Seth B. Weinshenker represented the plaintiffs and did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Seth J. Kraus of Gibbs & Associates in Mason, Ohio, who represented the defendants.
The 81-page decision is Lippard v. Holleman (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-137-20). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.