LOUISVILLE (Outlook) A state court judge in Kentucky has lifted a stay in the defamation case that Eric Hoey, a former director of Evangelism and Church Growth for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), filed against the denomination. The PC(USA) promptly appealed that ruling to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
The church’s lawyers are attempting to stop the action in state court – contending that under the precedent set by a Kentucky Supreme Court decision from 2014 (St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Society v. Edwards), the Hoey case should be dismissed on the grounds that courts lack jurisdiction over religious organizations on internal matters involving theological controversy, church discipline or ecclesiastical government.
The PC(USA) also is seeking to avoid turning over to Hoey’s lawyer, Dale Warren, an investigative report prepared for the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board that examines the handling of funds from the denomination’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities program. The Alston and Bird law firm prepared the report and gave it to the board in April 2015, but Warren said in court that Hoey has never been allowed to see it.
The investigation was initiated after it was discovered that in December 2013, an unauthorized corporation called the Presbyterian Centers for New Church Development Inc. was set up in California, and that later $100,000 of PC(USA) grant money was sent to that corporation. All of the money was later returned, and Linda Valentine, who then served as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has said none of those involved were acting for personal gain.
Hoey and three other former employees who were cited for ethics violations in connection with the matter lost their PC(USA) jobs in June 2015. Shortly after that, both Hoey and Roger Dermody, the denomination’s former deputy executive director for mission, filed defamation suits against the PC(USA) in Kentucky state court.
After hearing arguments in the Hoey case on March 17, Jefferson Circuit Judge Brian C. Edwards issued a ruling lifting a stay that he imposed in July 2015 in the case – meaning the case can proceed. The next steps in the state court case would be for the PC(USA) to provide documents – including the Alston and Bird report – that Hoey’s lawyer requested during discovery, and for Warren to respond to a motion that John Sheller, the PC(USA)’s lawyer, made for a summary judgment in favor of the PC(USA) in the case.
The PC(USA) didn’t wait for that to happen, however. Instead, on March 23, Sheller filed an appeal of Edwards’ March 17 ruling with the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
In September 2015, Jefferson Circuit Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman dismissed Dermody’s defamation case in a summary judgment. In her ruling, McDonald-Burkman stated that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and ministerial exemption – the precedents to which Sheller was referring – prohibit the court “from deciding cases that depend on ‘doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law, rule or custom, or church government.’ ”
Dermody has appealed that ruling to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The appeal is still pending.