What started as an argument over the piano solo at a Statesville church may mushroom into a potentially ground-breaking legal battle over the separation of church and state. And it focuses on a key question:
Can a pastor legally defame members of his flock from the pulpit?
In their 2013 lawsuit, husband and wife Kim and Barry Lippard, both longtime members of Diamond Hill Baptist Church, accuse Pastor Larry Holleman of doing just that. They say Holleman used false statements at a church meeting and in emails in an effort to get Kim fired as church pianist and the couple thrown out of the congregation.
A judge dismissed the Lippards’ defamation complaint last year, saying the courts had no jurisdiction in disputes over how churches are run or what they believe.
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On Tuesday, however, a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously overturned that ruling, arguing that there’s evidence Holleman defamed the Lippards with statements that are not necessarily protected under the constitutional barrier between church and state.
The opinion, which sends the case back to the trial judge for more deliberation, could break new legal ground in the state.
“Our courts have not yet considered whether a statement issued by a religious leader or made from the pulpit” can be grounds for a legitimate defamation lawsuit, Appeals Court Judge Bob Hunter Jr. wrote.
We are also obviously disappointed with the court’s decision, which has resulted in the undermining of our confidence in our constitutional right to carry out the disciplines of our faith.
Pastor Larry Holleman, who has been sued for defamation by two of his church members
Which brings us back to Diamond Hill.
In 2012, Kim Lippard, the congregation’s pianist and vocalist for 34 years, got into an argument with music director Alan Hix over the assignment of a solo performance. Tensions had been brewing between the two for a while, so Holleman tried two rounds of reconciliation. Neither ended well. The pastor blamed Kim for the discord, claiming she “failed to fully commit to an examination of her character.”
On Nov. 28, 2013, the question of whether she would continue playing the church piano came before the entire congregation. According to the Lippards’ complaint, Holleman, who has led the church for 10 years, delivered a two-hour sermon on why Lippard should be dismissed while reading “a 20-page diatribe” that included untrue statements about her and Barry, a church deacon.
Among Holleman’s charges against the Lippards: that Barry was a “liar” who had “aggressively” gone after the music director, Hix following a meeting; and that Kim had once accused Hix of hiding her sheet music.
The congregation voted to keep Kim Lippard at the piano. Nonetheless, Holleman continued to discuss the couple’s alleged character failings with other congregants to get the Lippards banished from the congregation.
The Lippards sued in 2013. Holleman and Hix, who was also named as a defendant, wanted the complaint thrown out, arguing that the courts had no standing in matters involving an “ecclesiastical or ecumenical question of church governance.”
Last year, Cabarrus County Superior Court Judge Martin McGee agreed. He said the Lippards’ defamation complaints arose from “internal communication” between Diamond Hill’s leaders and the congregation and that it was not a matter for the courts.
In the appeals court opinion, Hunter argued otherwise – saying that the First Amendment is not “an absolute shield” protecting churches and their leaders from liability, particularly in cases that don’t involve church doctrine.
“Libel,” Hunter wrote, “may sometimes cloak itself in religious terminology,” but that doesn’t mean the courts can’t weigh in.
For now, any decision on whether the line between church and state has been improperly broached should depend on what the evidence in the case shows, the opinion says.
Whether that ruling will be appealed is unclear. Attorneys for both sides did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment. But in a statement to the Observer on Wednesday, Holleman said the church is “saddened that our prayers and efforts toward reconciliation (with the Lippards) have not thus far been successful, but we continue to remember our brother and sister in our prayers.
“We are also obviously disappointed with the court’s decision, which has resulted in the undermining of our confidence in our constitutional right to carry out the disciplines of our faith.”