Tag: First Amendment
  • Court of Appeals holds that “heart balm” claims are not facially unconstitutional

    North Carolina is among only a handful of states still recognizing the civil claims of alienation of affection and criminal conversation.  Known as the twin “heart balm” torts, these laws were devised long ago when women were regarded as a type of property and private morals were regular court business.  In short, these claims allow a person to sue his or her spouse’s paramour for money damages.  To prove “alienation of affection,” a plaintiff must show that the defendant wrongfully alienated and destroyed the genuine love and affection that existed between plaintiff and spouse.  (Although lovers typically are the target of these suits, a defendant could be another third person who has set out to create the rift.)  To prove criminal conversation, a plaintiff must show that the defendant had sexual intercourse with the plaintiff’s spouse in North Carolina during the marriage (but before separation).

    In the other states that have not yet swept them into the dustbin of history, these claims do not often make their way to court.  North Carolina appears to be one of only a couple of states in which they are filed regularly and sometimes result in substantial settlements and large verdicts. Continue Reading

  • Gag order? Punishment for talking about a case? Can a court do that?

    In an earlier post about high-profile trials, I touched on a trial judge’s authority to restrict photos, audio, video, and broadcast of all or parts of an open court proceeding.  To sum it up, the court has broad discretion to restrict dissemination of the proceedings in order to protect the integrity of the process. And under the right circumstances someone who violates the court’s directive can be punished.

    But what about another high-profile trial issue:  When may a judge prevent people from reporting on or talking publicly about the case?  Or punish a person for doing so? Continue Reading

  • Courts, Church Disputes, and the First Amendment

    Just like other organizations, churches can sue and be sued.  Much of the time religious doctrine is not relevant to the dispute, such as when a contractor does a shoddy job building the sanctuary, when the church’s neighbor contests a boundary, or when the church’s van gets into a collision.  But sometimes disputes can hinge on, or at least involve, the organization’s beliefs, principles, creeds, or canons.  Usually that happens in internal disagreements—actions among the church and its members, officers, directors, or leaders; or between an individual assembly and the larger organizing body.  In such cases, the authority of secular courts to decide the outcome is sharply limited by the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    Analyzing a church’s internal property dispute, the U.S. Supreme Court stated decades ago that

    [F]irst Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice. If civil courts undertake to resolve such controversies in order to adjudicate the property dispute, the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern.

    Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem’l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969).

    When such conflicts arise in North Carolina civil actions, our courts must ask the following: May the court resolve the dispute using only neutral principles of law?  If so, the First Amendment does not prohibit the court from exercising jurisdiction.  If, instead, deciding the issue would entangle the court in ecclesiastical matters, the court must decline to intervene.  See Harris v. Matthews, 361 N.C. 265, 274 (2007).  “The dispositive question is whether resolution of the legal claim requires the court to determine or weigh church doctrine.” Smith v. Privette, 128 N.C. App. 490, 494 (1998).

    North Carolina’s appellate courts have not, of course, had the opportunity to subject every type of internal church dispute to this test.  But there are plenty of examples of how it applies—many quite recent—and these are some of the key conclusions: Continue Reading

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