Repeatedly in these reports we have seen that defamation claims are so difficult and expensive to pursue that they are only a marginal church litigation threat. Indeed, in these reports we have characterized defamation law as a fortress that few if any claims will ever breach. Nevertheless, for reasons political and economic, defamation claims are sometimes filed, announced to the public and then forgotten, often without being served on the opponent.
In de Laire v Voris, Order (D. NH. 2021), the United States District Court for New Hampshire was the scene of a defamation claim brought by a bishop against an internet news media company known as the Church Militant (churchmilitant.com). The bishop apparently imposed “sanctions” on a parachurch organization during a doctrinal dispute. The Church Militant not only reported on the sanctions dispute, but reported the bishop was the subject of complaints about the bishop’s canonical competence and other matters. In response to the bishop’s defamation claims, the Church Militant issued a subpoena to the diocese, a non-party to the case, for documents. The non-party diocese objected to the requests in the subpoena. The trial court ultimately refused to enforce the subpoena because negotiations between the diocese and the Church Militant left the requests unclear to the Court. Nevertheless, the federal trial court noted that that defamation claims in general, and therefore a related subpoena, do not automatically require inquiry into ecclesiastical matters. Therefore, the objection of the diocese invoking the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment was inapplicable and in order to reassert it the Court instructed the parties to specify its applicability to the particular documents sought.
It is hard to understand why any church leader would think that a defamation lawsuit was worthwhile when weighed against unintended consequences like court discovery. Indeed, in the reported case, the Court assumed in its Order that the diocese and the Church Militant through counsel would negotiate further on the discovery requests made by subpoena. While “revelations” in discovery seem unlikely, the cost of responding is not an expense to which most churches are accustomed. Litigation also seems to be way a uniquely good way to perpetuate adverse news media coverage of an issue that might otherwise be ignored by the public in short order.