INTERNAL CHURCH DEFAMATION

Typically, as long as the dispute among church members about church matters stays within the congregation the words said will not be actionable defamation.  Courts are barred from considering doctrinal issues by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine inspired by the First Amendment.  Thus, in order to avoid doctrinal issues lurking in ill chosen words among church members, courts refuse to hear internal defamation claims.  After all, while accusing someone of “lying” might be defamatory, it might be doctrinal if the claim is that they are lying about Scriptures in order to mislead the flock.

In Lippard v Holleman, Slip Op. (NC App 2020), the North Carolina Court of Appeals had to render the first decision in that state about whether statements made between members in a church regarding a church dispute were actionable defamation.  The church pianist and the Minister of Music began a dispute over assignment of church service solos that escalated into an intractable conflict.  Several, if not numerous, sessions to achieve “reconciliation” were attempted to no avail.  Finally, the Senior Pastor recommended termination to the Board of Deacons.  Eventually, the Board of Deacons recommended termination to the Personnel Committee.  Eventually, the Personnel Committee recommended termination to the congregation.  However, the congregational vote did not produce votes exceeding three-quarters of the voting membership in favor of termination.  As a result, the pianist remained employed and the dispute wore on until finally the pianist resigned and sued the pastor and music minister for defamation.

Defamation is almost impossible to win, truth is a defense, and wrongdoers rarely have the resources to respond in damages.  Nevertheless, oral statements and written statements should be temperate and truthful.  Oral and written statements should remain among the church membership.  If the constitution and bylaws of a church require a laborious termination procedure like that set forth in the case reported, they should be amended.  Laborious termination procedures will prolong an internal dispute to the detriment of everyone.  Fair and reasonable severance, even overly generous severance, is better than laborious termination processes.  Laborious termination procedures turn the process into a popularity contest based on a prolonged internal political campaign.

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