About a week ago a California appellate court handed down a decision affirming the trial court decision in the case of Jun Ki Kim et al. (Respondents) v The True Church Members Of The Holy Hill Community Church et al. (Appellants). From here I will use the annotation of Kim v. Church for the parties. The particular church at the center of this is in the Los Angeles area and a member of the Western California Presbytery (WCP) of the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC). The two sides have been involved in a dispute over the church leadership and membership in the WCP since early 2011 which has resulted in a bit of a long and complex ecclesiastical and civil saga.
I am going to keep this relatively brief, or at least not dissect this decision as much as I commonly do, for two reasons. First, the history of the dispute and the presbytery involvement is complicated. In the time frame of the complaint each side has alternately been excommunicated by the presbytery and recognized by the presbytery as the true church. At the present time the Kim group is supported by the presbytery and the Church group is out. In addition, each group when they were in control tried to withdraw from the presbytery and the presbytery did not approve of their actions. Whether a KAPC church can take the action unilaterally I am not sure as I have not found an English language translation of their Book of Church Order (BOCO) to consult.
However, in the end the pivotal event of consequence to the trial was the Church group calling a congregational meeting to vote on whether to secede from the WCP, which they did. The presbytery did not recognize that vote, removed the church leadership, excommunicated the Church side in the dispute and brought the Kim side back into the church and the presbytery. The Church side alleged that the presbytery overstepped their authority and did not follow the process. The trail court said it was an ecclesiastical matter and did not interfere with the steps take by the presbytery.
The second reason that I will only consider part of this decision is that in the specifications of error the first applies to ecclesiastical control while the other two are legal procedural matters regarding admission of evidence and cross-examination.
So the Church group appealed the trial court decision on the three specifications of error including “the court erroneously found in favor of respondents based on appellants’ excommunication from the Holy Hill Community Church (Church) by the Western California Presbytery (WCP).” After reviewing the factual and procedural background, the decision discusses the deference to the presbytery’s excommunication decisions. In the discussion there is a section on the “Overview of law governing judicial deference to ecclesiastical decisions” which is an interesting read about the division of church and state (begins on page 8). The discussion is generally applicable since it focuses almost entirely on the classic U.S. Supreme Court decisions and only at the end brings in the controlling California decision, Episcopal Church Cases (2009).
One of the interesting polity arguments the appellants make is that while there was an internal dispute in 2011 there was no internal dispute in 2013 when the presbytery stepped in and excommunicated them. The court disagreed:
Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that there was “an internal church dispute which exists to this day.”… The mere fact that both factions—appellants and respondents—continued to participate in this case demonstrates that the dispute continued for at least as long as the case itself.
The money quote in this decision, at least as far as the ecclesiastical deference is involved, comes right at the very end of this section (pg. 12-13):
Appellants’ last two arguments seek to overturn the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that the WCP lacked authority to excommunicate them either because they validly seceded from the WCP or because no one from the Church had petitioned for any action by the WCP. They argue their secession was valid even though the WCP had previously removed [an] interim moderator, because BOCO rules permitted a “minister from the presbytery” to act as a temporary moderator. However, 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. 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. (See Concord Christian, supra 132 Cal.App.4th at p. 1409 [explaining distinction between hierarchical and congregational church structures].)
We have already determined that the court correctly deferred to the WCP’s decision as a higher ecclesiastical authority. Similarly, the ecclesiastical rule of judicial deference to the highest authority within a hierarchical church on questions of church governance and church membership requires that we defer to the WCP’s decision that appellants’ vote to secede did not comply with BOCO, and that the WCP had authority to intervene.
Now if this were a property case my usual caveat is that interpretation of church property cases is highly variable from state to state. Not being a property case and primarily a membership case we can see that at least this California court gives the hierarchical church, in this case the presbytery, significant latitude to intervene in this situation.
In reading this decision a detail about KAPC polity jumped out at me. I was interested in a couple lines from a section of the BOCO quoted in the decision concerning church property:
Their argument rests on language in BOCO, which states “[w]hen an internal dispute arises in the local church that is within the jurisdiction of a presbytery, regarding membership in the presbytery and the ownership of church property, the right to manage the church property shall temporarily be placed within the hands of the presbytery until the dispute is resolved and the normal operation of the local church is restored.”
An interesting process in implementing what might be considered a trust clause – in a dispute the property is automatically placed in the hands of the presbytery.
Three legal notes that I probably should mention about the decision. First, not withstanding the property reference I just quoted, this decision stays completely away from property disputes and explicitly says this is not a property dispute so there is no reason for the court to become entangled in the ecclesiastical issues. The ecclesiastical portion of this decision was about process and the power and authority of the presbytery regarding membership and leadership. Second, the WCP was originally a party in this case but following the second schism in 2013 where the Church party was excommunicated they dropped from the case. Finally, this appellate court was very deferential to the findings of the trial court and was primarily judging errors that would have affected the outcome of the trial decision, not just any little errors that might have occurred.
So is this case relevant to other civil litigation over church secessions and responses? Maybe. It is a well written decision that sets out the circumstances for hierarchical deference in this case and could be used as a model for others.
On the other hand, this is a lower appeals court decision in one state and while it might set an example or model, it does not set precedent outside that circuit. Its applicability to the State of California would be more important if further appeals take it to the state supreme court. In addition, most of the other cases I look at include litigation about the property which this decision explicitly says is not in play here. How likely are the circumstances in this one particular situation to be replicated in other disputes? This could be a unique example and other cases may be different enough that its reasoning and model are not applicable.
However, as a polity wonk I found it to be an interesting insight into both the process within the KAPC in situations like this as well as a court dealing with the interface of church and state and the boundaries placed by the U.S. Constitution in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.
An interesting diversion. Your mileage may vary.
Now back to the next round of General Assemblies…