FRANKFORT, Ky. - Campbell Law Assistant Professor of Law Amos Jones argued a First Amendment case before the Supreme Court of Kentucky on Friday, Aug. 23. The case was heard by the seven justices in the commonwealth’s historic Capitol chambers in Frankfort, Ky.
The case in question, Kirby v. Lexington Theological Seminary, revolves around the appeal of a former professor with tenure who claims that he was wrongfully dismissed in 2009, as the seminary endured economic uncertainty. The seminary has successfully argued that the firings are not challengeable because of the ministerial exception, first in Fayette Circuit Court in Jones’s native Lexington in 2009, before Jones accepted the case pro bono noticing the constitutional matter of first impression for Kentucky courts, and again in 2012 before the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which cited intervening precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States. The high court held in January 2012 that religious organizations can hire or fire certain kinds of employees without government review, for the first time recognizing an exception that had appeared in common law forty years earlier.
Jones, who was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Constitutional Law when he took over the dismissed case and who teaches Contracts at Campbell Law, argued that his client’s employment was not ministerial as the Supreme Court has conceived of the new exception and that the dispute is based on simple contract violations and racial discrimination rather than on internal affairs of the faith. The plaintiff, Jimmy Kirby, is an unordained layman who belongs to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, but the institution is related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. Kirby, who earned a doctorate in theology from Boston University and taught courses in social ethics for 15 years at the Seminary, alleges that the institution’s tenure policy prohibited firing without due process.
The day before the hearing, Jones presented a brown-bag luncheon convened by Campbell Law Dean J. Rich Leonard for 3Ls and faculty colleagues, who engaged him on their downtown Raleigh, N.C., campus in questions and answers over the lunch hour after he presented the case and the events leading him to pursue it back in 2010.
“I saw the need for the Supreme Court to confirm the existence of and then clarify the ministerial exception, a new idea not recognized by the Supreme Court at that time,” Jones said. “I had studied the long-established and largely inclusive ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine under John Mansfield in law school and identified this case as potentially compelling in that line.”
When, however, the Supreme Court decided to review a case out of the Sixth Circuit as the case of first impression before Kirby was procedurally ripe for that kind of review, Jones “had to brief afresh for the Kentucky Court of Appeals.”
Though Kirby lost there in a 3-0 decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court granted Jones’s Petition for Discretionary Review, clearing the way for the August 23 hearing.
Jones described himself as “a committed Baptist layman devoted to a sensibly scaled but not impenetrable ‘wall of separation’ between church and state.”
Jones teaches in the area of contracts and consults in the areas of employment discrimination and appellate constitutional litigation. In April 2012, he delivered expert testimony at an oversight hearing in Washington, D.C., on the most effective ways to improve enforcement of D.C.'s Human Rights Act of 1978, and in November 2012 he appeared as an invited guest of the law faculty at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, critiquing that country’s experimentation with affirmative action remedies for blacks there. This past February he delivered a faculty workshop and a public lecture at the University of Kentucky to kick off the institution’s observance of Black History Month.
“I found this ministerial exception issue to be vitally important,” Jones explained. “The Supreme Court, we argue, must follow the federal Constitution and its ingenious approach to the proper balancing between church autonomy and civil authority. This client on these facts in this state presents the perfect context in which to do this work.”
Before coming to Campbell Law, Jones practiced in the international trade and commercial litigation groups of Bryan Cave LLP in Washington, D.C. Prior to entering the legal profession, he was a journalist for Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers in Georgia, Kentucky, New York, and North Carolina.
Jones graduated with honors in political science from Emory University, where he was a Harry S. Truman Scholar, earned his Master of Science from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he served as an executive editor of both the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal and the Harvard Human Rights Journal and was President of Direct Action. While at Harvard, he was awarded a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship, on which he spent his first year out of law school as a visiting scholar in the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies at Australia’s University of Melbourne.
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