Court Says Religious Tiff Contains Secular Claims

     (CN) – The Indiana Court of Appeals allowed a woman to pursue a defamation claim against fellow churchgoers who called for her removal from two church committees, saying the complaint contains secular allegations couched in a religious dispute.

     Rosalyn West attended the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis. She sued two fellow congregants, Betty Wadlington and Jeanette Larkins, and Larkins’ employer, the city of Indianapolis.
     Wadlington wrote an email to the church officials about West, stating “I have been stupefied by the way she can cut a person to shreds with her tongue … I witnessed Sister West SCREAM at an elder member our church who in no way deserved such a level of disrespect.”
     Wadlington went on to request that West be removed from the Pastoral Search Committee and from the chairmanship of the Christian Education Committee.
     “(Minister) Wayne Jr. told her she had an EVIL spirit,” Wadlington continued. “He hit the nail directly on the head! She will further destroy this church if you let her remain in a position of leadership.”
     Larkins works at the Indianapolis Police Department, where she received the email and forwarded it to 89 other church members.
     The trial court dismissed the case, but Judge Mathias revived it, rejecting the defendants’ argument that West’s claims would require the court to determine questions of religious doctrine.
     While the email claimed that West was not “Christ-like” and was “controlled by a spirit that is of anything but God,” the non-religious undertones are strong enough to reinstate West’s lawsuit, the appeals court noted.
     These include accusations that West attacked a pastor’s family, without specifying a literal or figurative attack. Even the accusation of having an “evil spirit” may be considered a secular attack on a person’s character, Mathias said.
     “We believe,” the judge wrote, “that a properly instructed jury could view Wadlington’s letter and decide whether the statements are defamatory in a secular sense.”

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