Alabama high court dismisses pastor’s defamation claim on 1st Amendment grounds

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In In re Higgs v. Bole, (AL Sup. Ct., Aug. 31, 2012), the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed a defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuit brought by Lawton Higgs, Sr., a United Methodist pastor, against a lay member of the Church of the Reconciler (COR).  Tom Bole, a lay member of COR, wrote to Rev. Ron Schultz, a district supervisor of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, charging COR pastor emeritus Lawton Higgs, Sr., and his son Kevin Higgs who served as COR’s senior minister, with accounting irregularities, as well as expressing concern about the pastors’ liberal political rhetoric. The Conference began an investigation, but on May 26, 2011, informed various COR members that the complaint was dismissed and that the Higgs’ would be transferred out of any role in the congregation.  At that point, Bole sent a e-mail to numerous members of the congregation charging the Higgs’ with wrongful conduct. Lawton Higgs, Sr. sued. Finding that his claims were intertwined with the underlying investigation by the Conference, the court concluded:

Any attempt to adjudicate Higg’s claim would require an impermissible inquiry into the Conference’s investigation of the complaints against Higgs and Kevin, into the results of the investigation conducted by the Conference, into the factual findings that formed the basis for the resolution and into the Conference’s decision to remove Higgs and Kevin from COR…. Additionally, allowing the claims regarding Bole’s May 31, 2011 conversation … and …  e-mails …  to proceed could have a chilling effect on communication among members of a congregation regarding church leadership…. For these reasons, the trial court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over Higg’s claims against Bole by virtue of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.