An altercation between a pastor who’s a former school board member and a Roanoke County family has escalated to a defamation lawsuit that also names Roanoke City Council member Luke Priddy as a defendant in the case.
The new legal action is a sign that already high tensions around school policies have hit a new boiling point in the county.
[Read more of Cardinal’s coverage: School board races are becoming battlegrounds for national debates. Communities are feeling the impacts.]
Thomas McCracken III is seeking $750,000 from Tiffany Sandifer of Roanoke County, claiming that she assaulted him after a school board meeting in August. He alleges that she then posted false statements about him on social media, which he says hurt his reputation as a pastor.
The suit says Priddy, who sat next to McCracken during the meeting, got involved in the dispute after Sandifer and one of her teenage daughters, Keely Meadows, accused McCracken of touching Meadows during the heat of the disagreement, a claim that McCracken denies. Priddy “announced loudly, ‘I saw you touch her,’” the suit says.
The complaint, which was filed Friday in Roanoke County Circuit Court, seeks $200,000 from Priddy.
The suit also seeks up to $2 million more from the two defendants together, alleging that they conspired to defame McCracken and hurt his business.
The suit stems from a county school board meeting on Aug. 17, when the board unanimously approved the Virginia Department of Education’s new model policies on transgender students, which limit the rights given to transgender or gender-nonconforming students without parental sign-off.
The meeting became heated, and at one point police arrested an attendee who was charged with disorderly conduct.
Sandifer and her two teenage children attended to show support for transgender students, and raised concerns during public comment that students would be negatively impacted by the model policies. McCracken did not speak at the August meeting but notes in his complaint that he “encourages others to pray for students struggling with transgender issues.”
During the meeting, a photo was posted on one of McCracken’s social media accounts showing Sandifer and her children sitting down during the Pledge of Allegiance.
At the end of the meeting, one of Sandifer’s children approached McCracken, asking why he had posted photos of their family on social media. A disagreement ensued between Sandifer’s family and McCracken.
The dispute spilled out of the board room and into the parking lot, where police officers who were on hand for the meeting escorted McCracken to his car. As McCracken drove away, Meadows shouted obscenities at him.
Meadows, 15, is not named directly in the suit but is referred to by her initials.
On Aug. 31, McCracken submitted a petition for a protective order against Sandifer in Roanoke County General District Court, outlining verbal threats that he says Sandifer and Meadows made at the August school board meeting. It also noted threats allegedly posted on social media along with a flyer “being distributed at my work.”
McCracken is pastor of CommUNITY Church in Salem. He briefly served on the Roanoke County School Board in 2016 but resigned so the board could approve a promotion for his wife, who worked in the school division. Board chair Brent Hudson now holds the seat for the Catawba District that McCracken once represented.
McCracken was issued a temporary protective order that barred Sandifer from entering his church. During a court hearing Monday, the petition for a further protective order was dismissed.
The lawsuit concerns the same key events. It cites Facebook posts from April in which Sandifer is accused of calling McCracken “a cult leader or a wannabe cult leader, maybe” and saying that McCracken “decided that because my daughter had previously commented in support of somebody who opposed Mr. McCracken on his own Facebook page, that he would, in fact, stalk my daughter for several days, weeks months.”
McCracken said in the lawsuit that Sandifer’s Facebook posts and comments accuse him of trying to “religiously groom” her daughter via Facebook and of “attacking children.”
According to the suit, flyers were placed in the mailbox, on cars, and “strewn about the property” of McCracken’s church, showing what appears to be a screenshot from an undated TikTok video created by Sandifer. A text box on the video screenshot reads “Tom McCracken, ‘pastor’ of CommUnity Church in Salem, VA touches and attempts to intimidate children and thinks their parents won’t f— his whole life up.”
Defamation cases are often easier to win when they’re between two private citizens, rather than cases featuring someone of public prominence, like a celebrity, said Stan Barnhill, a principal at the Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black law firm in Roanoke who has expertise in defamation cases but is not involved in this lawsuit.
But the challenge remains for McCracken to prove that the statements made about him were false and were made with knowledge that they were false, and that the statements hurt his reputation, Barnhill said.
Reached by phone Monday, Melvin Williams, McCracken’s attorney, said he’s confident in his client’s case and said that 90% of the allegations noted in the complaint are documented on social media. Sandifer’s statements, Williams said, are incontrovertible.
Williams said the timing of the lawsuit filing on Friday was not intended to influence the protective order hearing Monday.
As of Monday afternoon, neither Sandifer nor Priddy had been served with the lawsuit, according to online court records.
Sandifer did not respond to a voicemail message Monday afternoon. Priddy, a Democratic member of the Roanoke City Council, said he had no comment.
Meadows and McCracken held dueling events ahead of the school board meeting Sept. 21. Meadows announced her event first: a rally for transgender students and their allies to make signs and tie-dye shirts, and to listen to speakers ranging from a Methodist pastor in Botetourt County (also Meadows’ grandfather), to school board write-in candidate Samantha Newell. The event attracted about 65 attendees, many of whom also attended the school board meeting that night.
Across a wide field outside the county schools’ central office, McCracken gathered a group of about 30 people to pray for students and to praise the school board for adopting the state model policies for transgender students. McCracken wore a body camera on his suit jacket and repeatedly stated his wishes to avoid an altercation with the student-led group convening at the same time.