Judge lets ousted priest sue in test of First Amendment

Philadelphia, USA - Clearing the way for a landmark test of the First Amendment, a Montgomery County Court judge has allowed an Episcopal priest to sue his bishop for removing him from priesthood.

In a decision released yesterday, Judge Thomas Branca rejected Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr.'s argument that the Rev. David Moyer had no right to settle their differences with a civil trial.

Bennison's lawyers had argued in four appearances before Branca that the First Amendment barred civil courts from deciding cases involving religious personnel disputes.

But Moyer's lawyers replied that the priest had no other remedy because Bennison denied him due process by removing him without a church trial, as church law requires.

They also say Bennison fraudulently concealed relevant documents from the diocesan standing committee, the diocese's administrative body, which endorsed Moyer's removal.

John Lewis, Moyer's lawyer, said yesterday that he believed Moyer v. Bennison would be "the first time that a case will go to trial which involves ecclesiastical discipline of a priest in a hierarchical church."

Moyer, longtime rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Rosemont, is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

"Finally, after four years, a jury trial will make known the full story of the injustice I've suffered," he said yesterday.

Branca has not set a trial date.

Bennison's administrative assistant referred a request for comment to his attorney, Mary Kohart, of the Center City law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath. Kohart's secretary said she was out of the office. She did not return a request for comment.

Moyer, 56, a traditionalist fiercely opposed to gay marriage and female and gay clergy, has been a longtime critic of the liberal Bennison, 62, a feminist and gay-rights supporter.

Around 2000, Moyer barred the bishop from preaching, saying Mass or confirming at Good Shepherd.

In 2002, Bennison responded by "inhibiting" Moyer from dispensing the sacraments, and said he would "depose," or remove, him in six months if Moyer did not allow Bennison to make pastoral visits to the parish.

Moyer abided by the inhibition, but later that year he presented himself for consecration as a bishop in Anglican Church in America, a small, breakaway church of traditionalists.

Bennison then made good on his promise to depose Moyer, who had sought a church trial in order to publicly accuse Bennison (and others in the Episcopal hierarchy) of heretical disregard for scripture.

The bishop, however, stunned Moyer by refusing to grant him a trial before a church court. Bennison invoked a little-known provision of the canons that allows a bishop to summarily remove a priest who joins another faith.

Their quarrel drew international attention after it was revealed that the Revs. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, and George Carey, then the archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of worldwide Anglican communion, had urged Bennison to reinstate Moyer.

The Diocese of Murray, Australia, then made Moyer an assistant bishop, effectively keeping him within the mainstream Anglican communion.

Good Shepherd, meanwhile, has kept Moyer on as its rector.

Bennison, bishop of the five-county diocese for 10 years, has also come under fire for depleting diocesan endowments by $10 million to fund development of a multimillion-dollar summer camp and retreat center in Maryland.

Last year the 10-member diocesan standing committee petitioned the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church for a trial seeking Bennison's dismissal as bishop.

A decision from the presiding bishop on whether to issue a "presentment," or indictment, against Bennison is due in early February.