NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Libel · Jan. 10, 2006
Book calling local church a “cult” not defamatory
Jan. 10, 2006 · A Texas appellate court, throwing out a church’s lawsuit which claimed it was defamed by being included in a book about cults, ruled that the book did not, as a matter of law, defame the church.
A reasonable reader would not read the introduction of the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions and assume that anything written there defamed the church, which has a one-and-a-quarter page entry in the 700-page book, written to show the dangers of cults, the Court of Appeals of Texas in Houston ruled Thursday.
“It’s a good case for journalists because it brings together several different concepts and puts them all in one place,” said Lynne Liberato, co-counsel for the authors. “It reinforced the strong public policy in Texas of protecting First Amendment rights and the rights of reporters and publishers.”
The church, The Local Churches, and its publishing voice, Living Stream Ministry, brought a libel suit against John Weldon and John Ankerberg, the encyclopedia’s authors, and Harvest House Publishers, alleging the authors defamed it by including it in the book and by mentioning the church twice and Living Stream Ministry once in its 66-page appendix.
“It really helps to see the book,” Liberato said. “It’s a great big old thick book, but the church really focused on the introduction, which says that cults do the following things and then lists off a number of things.”
According to the book’s introduction, many cults subject their members to, among other things, physical harm, drug smuggling, murder, denial of medical access, prostitution, rape, child molestation and black magic.
The court granted the authors’ motion for dismissal of the suit by finding that there was no genuine dispute of material fact.
It found the authors could not be sued for calling the church a cult because a “cult,” according to the book, is a “separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity.”
Judge Sherry Radack, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, ruled that the “issue of whether a group’s doctrines are compatible with Christianity depends upon the religious convictions of the speaker.” Therefore, “being labeled a ‘cult’ is not actionable because the truth or falsity of the statement depends upon one’s religious beliefs, an ecclesiastical matter which cannot and should not be tried in a court of law.”
The court also considered whether the negative descriptions of cult activities could lead to a lawsuit.
“Somewhere deep in the book there’s a small description of the Local Church with nothing defamatory,” Liberato wrote. “They [church officials] extrapolate from the introduction to the rest of the book and say that they were libeled through the introduction. The court basically said that if that’s true, then every entry in the book would have a cause of action against the authors.”
The court found that “considering the Introduction as a whole, we cannot conclude that a reasonable reader could believe that all groups named in the book participate in the criminal activities that plaintiffs claim as the basis of their libel action,” Radack wrote. “No reasonable reader could conclude that the book accuses the church, and, in fact, every other church named in the book, of rape, murder, child molestation, drug smuggling, etc.”
The court concluded by stating that simply “being included in a group with others who may have committed such ‘immoral illegal, and despicable’ actions does not give rise to a libel claim,” Radack wrote.
Liberato said she does not know if the church plans to ask for a rehearing or to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
(Harvest House Publishers v. Local Church; Media counsel: Lynne Liberato, Tom Williams, Don Jackson of Haynes & Boone; Shelby J. Sharpe argued the case for Harvest House, Houston, Texas) — CM