The United States Supreme Court has denied a petition for a stay in a defamation case involving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which means the case – brought by Eric Hoey, formerly the PC(USA)’s director of evangelism and church growth – will proceed in state court in Kentucky.
The PC(USA) had petitioned to the nation’s highest court for a stay of a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling because it’s trying to prevent Hoey’s attorney from proceeding with discovery in the case, which potentially could require the denomination to turn over certain documents and sworn statements related to a 2014 ethics investigation involving the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program.
Four men, including Hoey, lost their jobs in June 2015 as a result of that investigation. Hoey filed a defamation case against the denomination in the summer of 2015, and in September 2018 the Kentucky Supreme Court sent the case back to Kentucky Circuit Judge Brian C. Edwards for limited discovery on the question of whether the PC(USA) should be entitled to ecclesiastical immunity.
Lawyers for the PC(USA) argued in their filing with the U.S.. Supreme Court that the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that scrutiny of the denomination’s ethics policies “falls well beyond the purview of secular courts,” falling under what’s known as the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine.
The filing stated that “the Church adjudicated that Rev. Hoey committed a violation of the Church’s ethics policy by mishandling funds that were gifts from God. …Judicial assessment of whether Rev. Hoey did, in fact, commit an ethics violation requires a determination of what constitutes an ethics violation—a question that would necessarily entangle the courts in religious discipline, governance, and doctrine prohibited by the First Amendment.”
An internal PC(USA) ethics investigation found that four employees from the PC(USA)’s national staff were involved in an unauthorized plan in which funds were channeled from the PC(USA) to an independent nonprofit corporation set up in California.
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.
In order for the case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, four of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices would have had to agree – and that didn’t happen when the petition was considered on May 30. So now it’s back to state court for the Hoey case, nearly four years after the defamation case was first filed.
Roger Dermody, formerly the PC(USA)’s deputy executive director for mission, also filed a defamation case in connection with the ethics investigation.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals dismissed that defamation case in 2017, rulingthat the trial court in that case was correct to apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and that not to do so would involve “excessive government entanglement into an ecclesiastical controversy.”
Hoey now serves as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Henderson, Kentucky.