Friday, May 22, 2015
C.A. Upholds Church’s Right to Excommunicate Members
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Church members who have been excommunicated in accordance with the church’s governing documents have no legal remedy because courts cannot question ecclesiastical decisions, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Five affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey’s order granting declaratory relief to the current leadership of the Holy Hill Community Church, led by Rev. Dong Sub Bang.
Bang was senior pastor of the church, located at 1111 W. Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, from 2003 to 2011. He was ousted in a battle with Western California Presbytery of the Korean American Presbyterian Church, but was restored to leadership two years later.
The two factions, one led by Bang and the other by Albert Shin, who served as interim pastor between the time of Bang’s ouster and early 2013—have been in and out of court for the last four years, ever since Bang tried to excommunicate more than 40 of his parishioners.
Vote to Secede
At a congregational meeting led by Bang, the congregation voted to secede from the presbytery, which in turn fired Bang and three elders, named Cho and later Shin as interim pastors, and appointed a commission to take control of the church property.
The next month, the presbytery took control, changed the locks, and posted security guards to keep Bang and his followers out.
The presbytery sued for declaratory and injunctive relief and an accounting; Bang and his loyalists cross-complained for trespass, declaratory relief, and intentional interference with prospective advantage.
The Bang faction also sought a preliminary injunction restoring Bang to the pastorate and returning control of church property to the plaintiffs.
Two different Los Angeles Superior Court judges denied preliminary relief, and the Court of Appeal affirmed in 2012, holding in an unpublished opinion by since-deceased Justice Orville Armstrong that the firing of the pastor and the elders was an ecclesiastical decision not subject to judicial review.
When the congregation agreed by contract to join the presbytery, Armstrong noted, it agreed to be governed by the Book of Order, a governing document of the Korean American Presbyterian Church. That document grants the presbytery broad authority to approve and install pastors, resolve disputes regarding management of church property, choose elders, and remove pastors from office, Armstrong explained.
In 2013, however, the dispute took an abrupt turn, as the Shin/Cho faction began fighting with the presbytery and tried to secede, at around the same time the Bang faction declared its repentance and sought to return to the parent church’s good graces.
As a result, the presbytery held a meeting at which it voted to disregard the congregation’s secession vote, dismissed Shin from the presbytery, excommunicated several of his followers, and reinstated members of the Bang faction into the presbytery and gave them authority to protect church property.
The presbytery then withdrew from the lawsuit, two months before the scheduled July 2013 trial, which was continued for three months. The Bang faction then dismissed all of their claims, except the one seeking declaratory relief, while the Shin faction dismissed its entire complaint, so the trial proceeded solely on the Bang faction’s request for declaratory relief, which was granted by Fahey following a bench trial.
Arguments on Appeal
The Shin faction argued on appeal that the excommunications by the presbytery were illegal, that the judge erroneously admitted evidence of events occurring after the cross-complaint for declaratory relief was filed, and that it was error to prevent their counsel from cross-examining a representative of the presbytery.
Justice Sandy Kriegler, writing for the Court of Appeal, sided with the trial judge and the Bang faction on all issues.
The jurist explained that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, judges must defer to ecclesiastical decisions, including the rules of hierarchical bodies. In this case, he said, the presbytery, as the highest tribunal within the parent church, was entitled to have its decisions respected by the courts.
What the courts cannot do, Kriegler went on to say, was determine whether the presbytery had properly interpreted the Book of Order as barring the Shin faction from seceding.
“[I]n in arguing the validity of their secession vote, they highlight the entire reason behind the ecclesiastical rule, which is that courts are ill-equipped to interpret ecclesiastical rules, particularly in hierarchical church organizations,” the justice wrote. “No party disputes that the KAPC is a hierarchical organization, consisting of various presbyteries, and that churches are subordinate to both the KAPC and the presbytery to which they belong.”
Kriegler went on to say that Fahey had discretion to consider evidence of evidence occurring after the cross-complaint was filed, and that the Shin faction’s counsel was properly denied the right to cross-examine a representative of the presbytery based on the attorney’s previous representation of the presbytery.
Attorneys on appeal were Gina A. Leago and David D. Yang of Parker Mills for the Shin faction and W. Dan Lee for the Bang faction.
The case is Kim v. True Church Members of the Holy Hill Community Church, 15 S.O.S. B255924.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company