Monday, September 15, 2003
C.A. Reverses Ruling Allowing Church Authorities to Oust Pastor
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Court of Appeal for this district has overturned a ruling allowing church authorities to oust the pastor of a Mid-Wilshire congregation, saying the trial judge failed to follow neutral legal principles and to give effect to the wishes of the congregants.
Wednesdayís ruling by Div. Four, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Daniel Curry, is the latest turn in a five-year battle pitting most of the congregants of the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church against the California Presbytery of the Korean American Presbyterian Church.
The Korean Philadelphia church is located on New Hampshire Ave., in a historic building that once housed Sinai Temple, one of the cityís oldest Jewish congregations. The congregationís dispute with its parent stems from a 1998 complaint by the former pastor, Chun Cho, that the congregation owed him money and a subsequent attempt by the parent church to oust Choís successor, James Cho.
The congregation rejected the Presbyteryís efforts and voted to withdraw from the parent body. The Presbytery, in turn, rejected the congregationís decision and tried to take control, leading to a physical confrontation and police intervention before James Cho and the congregation filed suit in 1999.
The plaintiffs obtained a preliminary injunction to bar the Presbytery and its employees and supporters from disturbing church functions or seeking to do business on the congregationís behalf. The defendants then filed a cross-complaint, claimed the support of the congregationís board of directors, and asked for an injunction ousting James Cho and his supporters from control of the church.
In Philadelphia Presbyterian Church v. California Presbytery (2000) 77 Cal.App.4th†1069, the Court of Appeal overturned the preliminary injunction as unnecessary and overbroad. The panel expressed concern that the order might be read as preventing members who support the Presbytery from ìcoming onto Church propertyî to attend meetings or from voicing their opposition to James Cho and the congregants backing him.
The panel stressed that courts are constitutionally barred from adjudicating internal church disputes over religious doctrine and practice and must rely on neutral legal principles in resolving other controversies among church members. It also concluded that the Presbytery and its officials lacked standing to assert the rights of congregation members.
The action was remanded to the Los Angeles Superior Court, where it was consolidated with a suit brought by Chun Cho, purportedly as a member of the congregationís board, as well as on his own behalf, against James Cho, as well as with a suit brought by the parent church against James Cho and the congregation.
Judge Emilie Elias then entered an order summarily adjudicating that the congregation retained ownership of the property by virtue of its deed, ìwithout prejudice to either party instigating litigation to having a judicial determination as to the ownership,î and that the issue of whether James Cho could be removed as pastor was ìecclesiasticalî and thus could not be resolved by a civil court.
Another suit was then filed by supporters of the Presbytery, claiming to act on behalf of the congregation, and by Daniel D. Jho against James Cho and others. Jho claimed to have been named pastor by the ìtrueî church and accused James Cho and his supporters from having used ìforce and threatî to prevent him from taking control of the church.
The judge in that case, John P. Shook, granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, holding that James Cho and his followers had resigned from the Presbytery and thereby ìabandoned their membership and lost all power and ability to determine the future statusî of the congregation.
The First Amendment, Shook said, required him ìto give binding and conclusive effect to a religious decisionî and, as a member of the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the congregation was bound by the decisions of that body and its regional arm, the Presbytery.
But Curry, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that holding the congregation to be bound by the actions of the Presbytery ìbegs the questionî of whether the local church can withdraw from its parent body.
Since nothing in the parent churchís rules prevented this, Curry reasoned, the court does not breach the separation of church and state by applying state law allowing local churches to disaffiliate from their congregations and retain control of church property.
The case was remanded to the trial court for a determination as to the validity, under the Corporations Code, of the congregationís vote to disaffiliate.
The case is Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church v. California Presbytery, B151945.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company