Ministers Sue Their Denomination

A denomination’s attempt to discipline two of its ministers has spawned years of litigation.

Both ministers occupied positions in the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)’s national hierarchy. Reverend Roger Dermody was deputy executive director of missions, and supervised Rev. Eric Hoey was director of evangelism and church growth. Rev. Hoey and some of his colleagues formed a nonprofit, apparently without PCUSA authority to do so. The PCUSA conducted an internal investigation and, in accordance with its Book of Order, issued warnings to the Presbytery. It issued a formal warning against Rev. Dermody for violating several PCUSA policies, including its ethics policy. It fired Rev. Hoey, and informed his home congregation that his termination was due to ethical violations.

Both ministers denied any wrongdoing, and each sued the PCUSA in court for defamation in 2015. Their lawsuits took different courses.

In the Dermody case, instead of determining that it had no jurisdiction over an internal church dispute, the court considered the defamation claim: truth is a complete defense to defamation, and the only way for the court to determine whether the PCUSA’s finding was true would require the court to interpret church doctrine and policies, which courts are loathe to do, under what they refer to as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The court granted PCUSA’s motion for summary judgment, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed, Dermody v Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 530 S.W.3d 467 (Ky.App. 2017).

We might prefer to see courts apply the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” at the outset and refuse even to consider the elements of the claim, but in any case, the court got this right; this internal dispute over whether the minister acted ethically does not belong in a state court.

One commentator termed this case “a victory for church discipline.”

Rev. Hoey’s case took a different path through the courts. He won a procedural motion in the trial court, which was affirmed by the Kentucky Court of Appeals and its Supreme Court, Presbyterian Church U.S.A. v. Edwards, 566 S.W.3d 175 (Ky. 2018).  (Edwards was the trial court judge who ruled against the PCUSA).

The PCUSA  petitioned the US Supreme Court for cert. PCUSA presented the issue as, “Whether the First Amendment requires a court to dismiss a claim without discovery or further proceedings when the claim, as expressly pleaded, contests a church’s termination of a minister’s employment on grounds that necessarily require judicial inquiry into church doctrine, policy, discipline or governance.” That petition for cert. was ultimately denied this past October (No. 18-1441, cert den October 7, 2019), four years after litigation began.

It may well be that an injustice was perpetrated against these two ministers, and that their reputations were unfairly tainted. But the Apostle Paul said it was better to be wronged than to sue your brother in court (I Cor. 6:1-7). But Christians do have another way to seek justice: within the church, not in the courts.