Lippard v. Holleman, No. 00A16-886 (N.C. App.) May 6, 2017.

Blogger’s Note: The North Carolina appellate court focused here on the limits of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses when considering claims of defamation, finding that no absolute bar to liability could be found, even where the defamatory remarks were interwoven with religious practices.  In this the court may have determined that the nature of public defamation required a bit more attention from civil law than did the congregation in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. ___ (2012), in which the Supreme Court found that federal discrimination laws do not apply to a church’s selection of its leadership.  While the latter evidences the United States’ Supreme Court’s strong deference to the internal workings of religious organizations in their hiring practices, the North Carolina appellate court here intimates that similar deference is undeserved where congregants’ reputations are at stake, and where the court need not refer to religious doctrine in order to make its findings and conclusions.

The Lippards served the Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Iridell County for many years, with wife Kim serving as pianist and husband Barry as deacon and committee member. When conflict erupted over Kim’s need to change her schedule, reconciliation according to Biblical precepts was suggested, but was unsuccessful.

The congregation did not vote to dismiss Kim notwithstanding that their minister preached a two hour lecture and circulated a twenty page document about the Lippards, and requested that the congregation vote on Kim’s compliance (or not) with scripture, the spiritual efficacy of efforts to reconcile her to Christ, and whether Kim had responded according to scripture.

Failure to obtain the congregation’s consent to dismiss Kim did not end the matter.  The minister commented about Barry’s character, sent emails about Kim’s status, and made attempts to ban the Lippards from the congregation and its services.

The Lippards appealed from a trial court’s dismissal of their defamation complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  Although such dismissals are not always subject to interlocutory review, the presence of First Amendment issues — civil involvement in ecclesiastic matters — commands immediate review, as even minimal deprivations of First Amendment rights may cause irreparable harm.

The court recited the parameters of the constitution which separate the authority of the state from the authority of a church.  The First Amendment prohibits government participation in the establishment of religion or intrusion into its free exercise.  Courts may not hear religious disputes, thereby inhibiting free exercise, or enter into religious controversies and put the enforcement powers of the state behind a religious entity, a through such activity the court could be fairly said to be establishing religion.

Judicial capacity to intervene in matters of internal church policy is quite limited, but the religious protections of the First Amendment are not absolute, the court noted.  Where neutral principles of law may resolve a dispute without involving church doctrine, courts may intervene.

North Carolina — for the first time — chose in this case to join other states in recognizing judicial capacity to determine a claim for defamation arising from a religious leader’s statements. Such claims may be analyzed to determine whether secular adjudication is permissible.

If a dispute concerns doctrinal matters, requiring the evaluation of truth in light of church doctrine, entanglement concerns prohibit a civil court from proceeding.  while rigorous contextual examination is needed to determine the true nature of a dispute, religious terminology may not serve as a shield against libel.  Indeed, suggesting that one of the Lippards engaged in criminal activity may be libel per se.

The appellate court vacated dismissal of the case and remanded for further proceedings.

Lippard v. Holleman (N.C. App., 2017)

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