Kentucky Supreme Court rules in defamation case


4–3 ruling sends case back to Jefferson Circuit Court

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – The Kentucky Supreme Court today ruled to send back to a lower court a defamation case filed by a former employee against the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In a 4–3 ruling, Kentucky’s highest court returned the case — filed by former Presbyterian Mission Agency employee the Rev. Eric Hoey — to Jefferson Circuit Court to determine whether it is a matter for the Church to decide or whether the case should be tried in civil court. 

“It has been the settled law of the land for well over 100 years that churches like the 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, attorney for the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. “The 4–3 decision injures those rights by forcing the Church to undergo additional litigation from which it should be immune.”

Hoey is one of four PC(USA) employees placed on paid administrative leave in 2014 while an independent investigation looked into the establishment of an unauthorized nonprofit corporation, the Presbyterian Centers for New Church Innovations Inc. As of June 1, 2015, the four were no longer employed by the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“The first amendment right to free exercise of religion guarantees a church’s authority to hire and fire its ministers at will, unfettered by government regulation,” wrote Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel Venters in the dissenting opinion, along with two other Justices. 

In a similar defamation case brought by Hoey’s colleague Roger Dermody, the Kentucky Court of Appeals last year unanimously affirmed a Jefferson Circuit Court ruling that said Dermody’s dismissal was a matter of “internal doctrinal affairs,” and not subject to state interference.

Sheller and Church leaders are reviewing the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hoey case and assessing next steps. 

A spokesperson for the Church reports that the A Corporation has incurred costs of $50,000 for the Dermody case and $50,000 for the Hoey case. Legal expenses beyond that have been covered by insurance carriers with no additional cost to the A Corporation or the denomination.

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