PC(USA) asks U.S. Supreme Court to take up defamation case appeal

Denomination cites First Amendment protections in its certiorari request

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) A Corporation is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up its appeal of a defamation case filed by a former employee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. (Photo by Jessica Palatucci)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up its appeal of a defamation case filed by a former employee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Louisville attorney John O. Sheller, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) A Corporation’s outside counsel, has filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, or a request for judicial review, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. Sheller has also applied to the Supreme Court seeking a stay of proceedings in the trial court in Louisville.

Granting certiorari by the nation’s highest court requires approval by four of the nine justices in order for the case to be heard. The court denies the vast majority of petitions and thus leaves the decision of the lower court to stand without review.

The A Corporation is appealing a 2018 ruling of the Kentucky Supreme Court in a defamation case involving Rev. Eric Hoey, who was formerly the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s director of evangelism and church growth. In September 2018, Kentucky’s highest court returned the case to Jefferson Circuit Court.

Hoey is one of four 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.

In his filing, Sheller asks the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay in the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision. If the stay is not granted, Sheller said the Church “will suffer continuing violation of its constitutional right to be free of excessive government entanglement in its affairs.”

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Hoey initiated the case, Sheller wrote to the high court, by filing a complaint in the state trial court in Kentucky, alleging that the Church had defamed him by publishing that he had engaged in “unethical” conduct as a minister.

One of the three arguments Sheller makes to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision is the likelihood that irreparable harm will result from the denial of a stay. The argument is based on the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine, a longstanding common law doctrine that guides courts when a case would require the court to decide a religious question.

A judicial assessment of whether 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,” Sheller’s filing argues. “The Kentucky Supreme Court’s directions to the trial court on remand are tantamount to permitting the trial court to review the religious reasoning behind the Church’s adjudication of Rev. Hoey for arbitrariness or pretext, but this second-guessing of the Church’s motivations is undoubtedly prohibited by the First Amendment.”

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