Pastor May Have Viable Claim That He Was Defamed by Church Leaders
The former pastor of a Korean-speaking congregation can't sue to get his job back but he may have a colorable defamation claim against church officials who accused him of theft, a New Jersey appeals court says.
More digging needs to be done, and a lot of the evidence first needs to be translated from Korean to English, the judges held Friday in Lee v. Sim.
While the Hope Presbyterian Church's firing of the pastor, Seung Joon Lee, raises First Amendment issues that prevent judicial resolution, the viability of the defamation case turns on whether the church officials have immunity, Appellate Division Judges Marie Simonelli and Allison Accurso said.
The controversy at the Teaneck church began at a prayer meeting where a deaconess, Ji Hyun Kim, announced publicly that Lee "stole money." Church elders then filed an accusation with the Eastern Korean Presbytery, the governing body for the region, seeking to have Lee relieved of his duties.
The accusation said turmoil caused by Lee had "led to the destruction of countless souls." A deacon, Jae Sim, and his wife, deaconess Hee Sim, alleged that Lee told them their $20,000 donation to the church, which never appeared on the books, should be made in cash.
On another occasion, an elder and the church's treasurer, Dong See Lee, stood outside the church with a sign that said, in Korean, that "he who stole money must go."
The Presbytery ultimately concluded that there was no evidence against Lee but said that in the best interests of the church he had to resign and that it would appoint an interim pastor.
Lee then filed a request for vindication with the Synod of the Northeast, the denomination's governing body, and then his lawsuit in Bergen County. Superior Court Judge Estela De La Cruz denied the defendants' motion to dismiss and they appealed.
The appeals court said De La Cruz should have dismissed the wrongful termination claim. Getting involved in that would "unavoidably impinge on the Presbytery's core right to decide who may minister to its members and propagate its beliefs and would entangle the court in substantive issues of religious polity and practice in violation of the Establishment Clause," the panel said.
But the clause doesn't bar defamation claims. "That defendants made the alleged defamatory statements as part of their effort to remove their clergyman does not render the dispute over their defamatory nature a necessarily ecclesiastical one," the judges said.