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Episcopalian In-fighting Spreads to Montgomery County Courthouse

James W. Cushing, Esq. on 3/9/2009

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    In October 2008 a Montgomery County jury ruled in favor of former Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, Charles E. Bennison, Jr., and against the Rev. David Moyer, Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

    Fr. Moyer and Bp. Bennison have had long-standing theological differences with Fr. Moyer being a traditional Episcopalian and Bp. Bennison holding to extremely liberal theological positions.  Their dispute was more than a private one, but also affected their professional relationship.  For example, Fr. Moyer prevented the Bishop from visiting his Parish, as required by the Canons, because Fr. Moyer believed such action was necessary to defend the faith he swore to adhere to in his ordination vows, as he believed the Bishop would inevitably preach things outside the bounds of traditional Episcopal faith.

    Their dispute came to a head in 2002 when Bp. Bennison deposed (i.e. defrocked) Fr. Moyer from the priesthood without a trial.  Bp. Bennison deposed Fr. Moyer under a church Canon allowing for removal of a priest based upon “abandonment of communion”.  This Canon does not provide for a church trial before removal.  It essentially permits a Bishop to summarily remove a priest if certain criterion are met that signify that the priest is no longer in communion with his bishop.  The essence of Fr. Moyer’s claim was that the Bishop’s removal of him as Rector and as a priest in the Episcopal Church was fraudulent when the Bishop used the “abandonment of communion” Canon as opposed to a more typical Canon such as “conduct unbecoming of clergy,” which requires a church trial before the removal of a priest.  Fr. Moyer asserted that he never abandoned the communion of the church, and that the Bishop had a personal vendetta against him and was intent on removing him by any means possible. Fr. Moyer, finding no relief under Church Canons, in regard to his removal, brought a civil suit against the Bishop for the alleged fraud, among other things.

    Along with the fraud claims, Fr. Moyer also attempted to turn his deposition from the priesthood by his ecclesiastical superior into a case of unlawful termination from his position by his employer, the Episcopal Church.  In so doing, the issue could be framed not as an interchurch squabble over obscure, perhaps medieval, Canons, but rather as an employment matter between an employee and employer and the work rules that govern their relationship.  Work rules, handbooks, or work policies are generally viewed as terms of a person’s employment and violation of the same by an employer allows an employee to bring a claim against that employer for the said violation.  It could be argued that as a priest is merely an employee of a diocese (and, by extension, the national church), his bishop is his “boss” and the church Canons are analogous to work rules.  As a result, if one finds this sort of framing convincing, the dispute between Fr. Moyer and Bp. Bennison was not a dispute between a priest and his prelate over church Canons, but between an employee and his employer over work rules.

    Despite attempting to frame this issue as an employment issue, the fact remains that the review of interchurch rules, policies, and decisions are protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.  In order to ensure adequate protection under the First Amendment, while also allowing a Plaintiff such as Fr. Moyer an opportunity for redress, the fraud claim was established as the gateway claim.

    Although Montgomery County Court Judge Joseph Smyth voiced his concern  that the lawsuit crossed the line from civil to church issues protected by the First Amendment, he permitted the case to proceed out of respect for the judge previously assigned to the case who had permitted the lawsuit to continue.  Although Fr. Moyer brought a variety of employment and civil claims against the Bishop in addition to the fraud claim, Judge Smyth, due to his First Amendment concerns, instructed the jury that if Fr. Moyer’s evidence did not meet the fraud burden of proof, all of his remaining claims must be dismissed.  Indeed, the Judge indicated that fraud had to “pervade” the Bishop’s decision-making process to depose Fr. Moyer in order for some or all of Fr. Moyer’s other claims to be successful.

    After deliberation, the jury found that there was insufficient evidence that the Bishop committed fraud in his deposition of Fr. Moyer.  The jury’s decision can be interpreted as determining that the Bishop acted well within his rights under the Canons, despite the evidence presented by Fr. Moyer that the Bishop had a personal vendetta against him.

    The conclusion to be reached from this lawsuit is that the First Amendment protects the actions taken within a religious body and the actions of the Bishop in deposing Fr. Moyer were not so egregious that the protections provided by the First Amendment would be insufficient.

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