Pending before the U.S. Supreme Court is a little-noticed petition from Kentucky that raises a crucial question under the First Amendment: Can courts allow disgruntled ministers to punish churches for being fired?
The key facts are simple and undisputed. Rev. Eric Hoey is an ordained Presbyterian minister who was employed as part of his church’s hierarchy. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fired him for violating church ethics by helping to create and fund a new church corporation without permission. As part of its discipline of Rev. Hoey, the church informed his home congregation and the broader Presbyterian community of the termination and the reason for it.
Blocked by Hosanna-Tabor from challenging his termination directly, Rev. Hoey brought a defamation claim against the church for announcing the reason he was fired. To prove his defamation claim, he will have establish the truth of whether he violated Presbyterian ethics and a court will have to examine the church’s internal disciplinary proceedings. To this, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that discovery can proceed in the suit “to determine whether Hoey’s actions . . . raised an issue of ecclesiastical doctrine . . . or if they amounted to a mere failure to follow organizational procedures.”
This holding is a radical departure from Supreme Court precedent. For more than 50 years, an unbroken line of decisions has established that the First Amendment guarantees the Church “power to decide for [itself], free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am., 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952). Allowing Rev. Hoey’s defamation claim to proceed to discovery flies in the face of Kedroff, which teaches that both church doctrine and procedure are constitutionally protected from judicial scrutiny. In fact, the Court has recognized that “the very process of inquiry” into a religious organization’s internal governance “impinge[s] on rights guaranteed by the Religion Clauses.” National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 502 (1979). Litigation discovery is invasive and often traumatizing for faith communities, especially small ones that lack sophisticated legal departments. Grilling church officials to explain why and how they terminated a minister can force them to reduce profoundly religious reasons to unconvincing secular ones. Given the constitutional sensitivity of such probing, it is critical that when the pleadings facially demonstrate that a claim is barred by the church autonomy doctrine, “the First Amendment requires dismissal”—immediately. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 194 (2012).
The petitioner thus raises this question for the Court:
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.
Unless reversed, the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision will chill internal church governance that the First Amendment protects—including procedures relating to the removal of a minister. With the vital principle of church autonomy at stake, churches and other religious organizations will be watching closely to see if the Supreme Court will grant review.