United States courts will not entangle themselves in the ecclesiastical affairs of a church or denomination. Some churches and denominations include in their governing documents ethics codes. Sometimes the codes are specific and other times they are simply referenced. Sometimes when the codes are specific, certain behaviors are included within the scope of the ethics code that might be included in non-church contexts.
In Dermody v Presbyterian Church (USA), 2017 WL 3495911 (Ky. App. 2017), the Plaintiff claimed he was defamed by the church’s classification of his behavior as an ethics violation and the transmission of that information to various other sectors in the church. The court dismissed the case and it was affirmed by the appellate court. The behavior classified as “unethical” was failure to detect that subordinates had incorporated and transferred some funds to the entity without obtaining advance approval of the incorporation from the denominational governing body. Involuntary termination resulted.
The Concurring Opinion suggested the failure to know the subordinates had improperly incorporated the entity was poor management but not “unethical” as the term “unethical” would be generally understood. However, the denominational control document expressly defined improper incorporation as an ethics violation. As a result, all of the judges ruled that pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and Ministerial Exception the denomination could set the scope of its ethics code in any manner and impose it on their employees. The courts would not interfere. The defamation claim was dismissed.