NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued May 1, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-7560-12.
Edward Sun Kiel argued the cause for appellants (Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard, P.A., attorneys; Mr. Kiel and David Stanley Gold, on the brief).
Jae Y. Lee argued the cause for respondent Seung Joon Lee (Law Offices of Jae Y. Lee, LLC, attorneys; Mr. Lee and Crew Schielke, of counsel and on the brief).
Masessa & Cluff, attorneys for respondents Boo Chun Lee and Eastern Korean Presbytery, join in the brief of appellants.
Before Judges Simonelli and Accurso.
Defendants appeal, on leave granted, the denial of their motions to dismiss plaintiff Seung Joon Lee's complaint, which arose out of their efforts to oust him as pastor of defendant Hope Presbyterian Church (Hope Church). Defendants argue that adjudication of plaintiff's claims would impermissibly entangle the Judiciary in matters of church governance in violation of the Establishment Clause. For reasons explained herein, we agree and reverse.
Plaintiff alleges in the first lines of his complaint that "a small group of church officials, " whom he refers to as the "Rogue Congregants, " "initiated proceedings" to have plaintiff's "pastoral rights terminated by slandering and defaming" him, resulting in his relationship with Hope Church being imperiled.
Specifically, he alleges that the trouble started at a prayer meeting in which defendant deaconess Ji Hyun Kim announced that plaintiff "stole money." Subsequently, Hope Church elders, defendants Yu Bong Kim, Chung Sung Yi, Dong Soo Lee, and Charles Kim submitted a formal accusation to defendant Eastern Korean Presbytery (the Presbytery), the governing council within the Presbyterian hierarchy for the geographic district encompassing Hope Church, seeking to dissolve the Church's pastoral relationship with plaintiff. The accusation alleged that plaintiff had precipitated disputes within the church that had "led to the destruction of countless souls, " driven the church "to the verge of dissolution, " sinned against God and church members and proved his inability to be the church's spiritual leader. The accusation was based, in part, on an affirmation signed by defendants' deacon Jae G. Sim and his wife, deaconess Hee B. Sim alleging that plaintiff advised them that their $20, 000 donation to Hope Church needed to be in cash. They later learned that donation had not been recorded in the church's records.
Plaintiff further alleged that defendant elder Dong Soo Lee, treasurer of Hope Church, stood outside the entrance of the church on a Sunday morning as congregants were entering for services with a sign "which essentially state[d] that 'he who stole money must go.'" Plaintiff claimed that former pastor of Hope Church, defendant Yong J. Kim, conspired with the other individual defendants in circulating a petition "based upon the same false and defamatory announcements" for a congregational meeting to address plaintiff's continued role as pastor of Hope Church.
The Presbytery formed a three-person committee, the Committee on Ministry, which included defendant Boo Chun Lee, to investigate the allegations of the accusation. Following its investigation, the Committee on Ministry announced that it "did not find any objective proofs and evidence" but had decided "[i]n looking out for the best interests of the church and the pastor, " that it would advise plaintiff to resign. The Presbytery thereafter appointed an interim pastor and Hope Church barred plaintiff from its property.
Plaintiff responded by filing a complaint with defendant Synod of the Northeast (the Synod), the intermediate council within the Presbyterian hierarchy of which the Eastern Korean Presbytery is a part, seeking original jurisdiction in the Permanent Judicial Committee and to stay further proceedings against him. The Synod dismissed the complaint and urged plaintiff to file a ...