Judge considers arguments in PC(USA) defamation case brought by Eric Hoey

LOUISVILLE (Outlook) A Kentucky state court judge considered arguments from lawyers March 17 in the defamation lawsuit that former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) employee Eric Hoey brought against the denomination in 2015.

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Brian Edwards held a hearing in which lawyers disagreed about what should happen next in the case. Hoey, the PC(USA)’s former director of Evangelism and Church Growth, filed the lawsuit in June 2015 after he and three other men lost their jobs in connection with an ethics investigation involving the denomination’s 1001 New Worshipping Communities program.

The four were involved in an investigation 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 acted for personal gain.

John Sheller, representing the PC(USA), contended in the March 17 hearing that Edwards should rule on the question of whether the case should be dismissed on the grounds that legal precedent holds that courts should not exercise jurisdiction over religious organizations on internal matters involving theological controversy, church discipline or ecclesiastical government.

Last September, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman dismissed a similar defamation case, filed by Hoey’s colleague Roger Dermody – the PC(USA)’s former deputy executive director for Mission. 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.

Sheller contended that this case clearly falls within the exemptions because Hoey is a PC(USA) minister and that he was disciplined “for mishandling of church funds.”

Dale Warren, a lawyer for Hoey, argued that his client is entitled to conduct discovery – to ask for documents from the PC(USA) related to the case, particularly for the results of an independent investigation that the Presbyterian Mission Agency board commissioned from the Alston and Bird law firm in Charlotte concerning the 1001 controversy. The board received that report in April 2015, but has not publicly released it – nor, according to Warren, shared its findings with Hoey.

“Those documents may very well exonerate him,” Warren told the judge.

Edwards took the lawyers’ arguments under advisement and issued no immediate ruling.