Friday, December 19, 2014

Kentucky Supreme Court Defines Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

In St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Society v. Edwards, (KY Sup. Ct., Dec. 18, 2014), the Kentucky Supreme Court redefined the operation of the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" under Kentucky law. The Court held that the doctrine is not a bar to jurisdiction, but instead operates as an affirmative defense designed to allow both churches and other religious organizations independence from secular control.  At issue in the case was a challenge by a group of St. Joseph Home alumni to the action at an annual meeting of members taken after the existing Board had been unable to muster a high enough vote to remove one of its own members accused of harassing employees.  By a resolution passed overwhelmingly, the members replaced the existing Board members and amended the bylaws to add protections against Board-member misconduct. The Court concluded that a challenge to this action involves an issue of ecclesiastical governance that is covered by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and so remanded the case to the trial court for dismissal.

The practical effect of the court's procedural holding is that in the future defendants will be able to file an interlocutory appeal when a trial court refuses to apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, instead of proceeding as in this case by seeking a writ of prohibition from the Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, it appears that while the Supreme Court's decision on issuing a writ of prohibition was pending, the trial court went on with the case.  WDRB reports that on Dec. 10, the trial court dismissed the challenge to the action at the annual meeting because the ousted trustees had an opportunity to attend a second meeting at which the bylaw amendments were to be reconsidered, and they chose not to attend. This report also sheds more light on the nature of the leadership contest:
The lawsuit pitted a largely aging group of trustees – among them former residents of the Frankfort Avenue orphanage -- against a younger faction with corporate ties.
[Thanks to Tom Rutledge for the lead.]