Press Release

Presbyterian Church wins right to follow its own religious rules Court rejects disgruntled pastor’s invitation to cross the church-state line

Media Contact

Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

Additional Information

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Kentucky Court of Appeals has protected the right of churches to follow their own religious rules, even if some church members disagree with how those rules apply to them. In Dermody v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), minister Roger Dermody sued the church for defamation after it notified members that Dermody had committed ethical violations in overseeing church finances. The court’s ruling protects the right of churches to operate their internal affairs without government intrusion.

In its July 28 order, the court ruled that it could not consider Dermody’s defamation claim because reviewing the church’s decisions about its own ethics standards would violate the church-state rules of the First Amendment. The court stated that “[t]here is but one way to decide” whether Dermody violated Presbyterian religious ethics rules: “review the determinations of an ecclesiastical body applying its own ethics rules. We cannot do that.” The court’s ruling adopts arguments that Becket made in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the church.

The following statement can be attributed to Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket:

“For most churches, ethics is Job One. They must be able to follow their own ethical standards. The court’s ruling is basic common sense: When someone violates a church’s religious ethics rules the church has to be able to take action. That is especially so when there are ethical concerns about the use of the funds church members put into the collection plate. To do otherwise would violate the principle of church-state separation: churches don’t control the state and the state doesn’t control churches. That goes for courts too—they can’t second guess a church’s internal affairs.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea at or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.