The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Sept. 27 to send a defamation case involving a former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leader back to a lower state court for its consideration.
The Supreme Court ruled in the case of Eric Hoey, who was formerly the PC(USA)’s director of evangelism and church growth and one of those who lost his job in 2015 with the PC(USA) in the 1001 New Worshipping Communities ethics investigation.
Hoey and three others – Roger Dermody, Philip Lotspeich and Craig S. Williams – lost their jobs following an investigation involving a $100,000 grant sent from the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program to a nonprofit corporation set up in California.
An internal PC(USA) investigation determined that the four had violated the denomination’s ethics policy in their handling of the matter.
All of the money was repaid, and Linda Valentine, former executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has said none of the four acted for personal gain. The 1001 program is the denomination’s effort, endorsed by the 2012 General Assembly, to create 1001 new worshipping communities from 2012 to 2022. Valentine resigned in July 2015.
That same summer, both Hoey and Dermody filed defamation lawsuits against the denomination. In 2017, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the case filed by Roger Dermody, the former deputy executive director for mission for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
At issue in the September 27 ruling is whether Jefferson Circuit Court should permit discovery to be conducted in the Hoey case – in other words, whether evidence can be collected about what happened. Essentially, the Supreme Court has ruled that limited discovery should be permitted in order for the trial court to rule on whether the PC(USA) should be entitled to ecclesiastical immunity.
At the heart of the legal arguments is whether the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine should apply – whether the secular court should refrain from involving itself in matters of church doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law or church government. As a dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court ruling states, “The First Amendment Right to the Free Exercise of Religion guarantees a church’s authority to hire and fire its ministers at will, unfettered by government regulation.”
In its ruling, the Court of Appeals determined that “the trial court should limit discovery to that which was necessary to determine whether the church was entitled to ecclesiastical immunity.”
Ecclesiastical immunity is a question that the PC(USA) raised – and prevailed upon – in Dermody’s defamation case. The denomination argued in that case that the claims in Dermody’s lawsuit involved a“quintessential matter of faith and polity,” and that the judge should apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and ministerial exemption and dismiss the case, which the state court judge in Dermody’s case did, dismissing the claim in September 2015.
The judge in Hoey’s case ruled differently – ordering the PC(USA) to respond to Hoey’s discovery requests. The PC(USA) appealed and the discovery process has been stayed while that appeal was pending.
In Hoey’s case, the Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court had abused its discretion in allowing broad discovery, but said it would allow discovery related to the ecclesiastical immunity question. The PC(USA) appealed that ruling to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which has upheld the Court of Appeals ruling.
So now the case is being sent back to Jefferson Circuit Court.
The Supreme Court’s ruling does not directly address the merits of the immunity issue – but the rules regarding a writ that the PC(USA) had sought from the Court of Appeals to prohibit the trial court from commencing discovery.
The Supreme Court ruling states that the PC(USA) argued that “the trial court had essentially abrogated its immunity by forcing it to participate in discovery without first making a threshold immunity determination. The church also asked the Court of Appeals to consider (for the first time) the issue of its immunity and to dismiss the underlying action on those grounds. The Court of Appeals granted the writ in part, holding the trial court had abused its discretion in allowing broad- reaching discovery, but denied the writ insofar as it would allow discovery related to the immunity issue. The Court of Appeals did not rule on the immunity issue. The church appeals, arguing the Court of Appeals’ order did not go far enough. We disagree.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling states that a writ is “an extraordinary remedy” and that the PC(USA) had failed to meet the test of showing “great and irreparable injury” if a writ was not granted.
The ruling states that “the trial court’s continuation with discovery regarding the church’s immunity would neither amount to a substantial miscarriage of justice nor fly in the face of orderly judicial administration. The immunity issue is squarely before the trial court and we will not hinder the parties’ access to discovery materials pertaining to that narrow issue. The trial court will be in the best position to control the flow of discovery.”
The Supreme Court also declined to rule, as the PC(USA) had requested, on the immunity issue, stating that was a matter for the trial court to resolve and that “we should not invade that court’s province.”
The ruling states that “no substantial miscarriage of justice will result even assuming the trial court’s ruling regarding narrow discovery relating only to the issue of immunity is erroneous. If the trial court determines that the church is immune, the inquiry need go no further. If that court determines it is not, that decision is immediately appealable. This simply does not rise to the high level necessary for this Court to grant an extraordinary writ.”
A lawyer for the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board commented to the Presbyterian News Service on the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling: “It has been the settled law of the land for well over 100 years, that churches like PC(USA) have the autonomy without interference by civil courts to decide for themselves their doctrine, polity and fitness for service of their ministers,” said John Sheller. “The 4–3 decision injures those rights, by forcing the Church to undergo additional litigation from which it should be immune.”