A recent state court decision in New Jersey addresses the role of the civil court’s in a dispute between a United Methodist Church congregation and its pastor. In Trustees of the Alpine Methodist Episcopal Church v. Reverend Hae Jong Kim, the facts of the case revealed that the Reverend Hae Jong Kim (“Rev. Kim” or “Defendant”) is an ordained elder in a retired relationship with the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. From 2008 to 2014, Rev. Kim served as the pastor of the Alpine Community Church (the “Church” or “Plaintiff”). However, his employment was ultimately terminated following allegations of improper use of church funds. The United Methodist Church (“UMC”), commonly referred to as the “Methodist Movement,” is hierarchical religious organization consisting of a connectional system of conferences, districts, local churches, boards, and agencies. Although local churches are linked to the connectional system, conferences maintain decision-making authority. The Charge Conference is an annual meeting of all local United Methodist Churches. The Charge Conference elects the members of the Annual Conference, which include all clergy members and those elected lay members. Finally, the Annual Conference selects the members of the General Conference, which represents the highest decision-making body of the UMC. All UMC affiliated churches are governed by The Book of Discipline: a book of law that contains a constitution, doctrine, doctrinal statements, general rules, and various organizational rules. Although the Alpine Community Church acknowledged that it had maintained a “historical affiliation” with the UMC, the Church insisted that it never formally adopted The Book of Discipline, and was therefore not subject to the UMC’s rules or polity. The Church’s “historical affiliation” with the Methodist Movement began around 1840, before Alpine Township came into being. Since its incorporation in 1870, the Church had maintained ties with the Methodist Episcopal Church. When the Methodist Episcopal Church ceased to exist, however, the Alpine Community Church continued its affiliation with the UMC. Additionally, Plaintiff’s submissions indicate that it accepted and employed Methodist pastors, and gathered regularly with members of the Methodist Movement at annual UMC conferences. Nevertheless, Plaintiff asserted that the Church never formally incorporated or reincorporated itself with the UMC.
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In February 2014, Reverend Wayne Plumstead, a District Superintendent from the UMC (“Superintendent Plumstead”) received information that a private investigator had been hired to investigate allegations of financial misdeeds on the part of Rev. Kim. On February 17, 2014, Superintendent Plumstead met with several Church representatives, who demanded that Rev. Kim be removed from his position immediately. The representatives asserted that Rev. Kim had improperly handled church funds in countless ways, including, but not limited to: diverting church funds to pay his utility expenses for his personal residence; appointing a financial secretary and permitting said secretary to collect and count money, which allegedly disappeared from the offering plate; and pilfering furniture from the patronage. Superintendent Plumstead requested that the Church representatives submit evidence of Rev. Kim’s misdeeds. However, upon consideration, Superintendent Plumstead concluded that the submitted evidence was insufficient to support the allegations against Rev. Kim. In response to these allegations, Rev. Kim retired from his position as pastor. Soon after, the Staff Parish Relations Committee and the Superintendent Plumstead met to discuss whether any action should be taken against Rev. Kim. The Committee ultimately decided to “move forward,” which presumably meant that it did not intend to file a formal complaint or pursue other avenues of internal church or legal prosecution. Nevertheless, the Church representatives retained Plaintiff’s counsel to further investigate Rev. Kim’s alleged wrongdoings. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff’s counsel received the investigator’s report that detailed the incidents of Rev. Kim’s improper use of finances. The report concluded that Rev. Kim had not only violated several rules set forth in The Book of Discipline, but several state and federal criminal statutes. As a result, the Church filed suit against Rev. Kim in June of 2014, asserting claims for unjust enrichment, tortious interference with contractual relations and future economic expectations, unauthorized withdrawal of corporate funds, and violation of ultra vires actions on behalf of the corporation. In response to Plaintiff’s complaint, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss.
The court held that Plaintiff’s complaint must be dismissed because civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters previously decided by the UMC’s hierarchical order. According to the court: “The present case asks this court to intervene into the internal affairs of battling factions in one of our oldest religious congregations. For the reasons discussed herein, the court is barred from entangling itself into such an internal ecclesiastical matter.” The Plaintiff first argued that the Church, as a congregationally organized entity, was outside of the membership and control of the UMC, and consequently, The Book of Discipline. Specifically, Plaintiff denies that the Church ever incorporated or reincorporated with the UMC, and that its failure to comply with the stated procedures for incorporation demonstrates the Church’s distinct existence from the UMC. However, while Plaintiff continued to deny its connection with the UMC, its own submissions admit that it had previously maintained ties with the Methodist Episcopal Church. Further, upon that church’s dissolution, Plaintiff retained its affiliation with the UMC through its employment of Methodist pastors and participation in annual UMC conferences. Further, Plaintiff’s submissions acknowledge The Book of Discipline as the prescribed rules and policy governing Rev. Kim’s misconduct. According to the court, “Plaintiff’s dissatisfaction with the hierarchical order’s adjudication of its claim does not nullify Plaintiff’s long-standing relationship with the UMC. The Alpine Church was governed by the UMC and subject to its doctrine and polity. An abrupt separation proceeding the commencement of its litigation is of no moment.”
Second, Plaintiff argued that because the complaint only addresses violations of secular law, rather than the UMC polity, it is immaterial whether The Book of Discipline constitutes applicable authority to govern Rev. Kim’s conduct. Plaintiff therefore concludes that Rev. Kim cannot seek refuge from civil liability under the UMC polity. The Establishment Clause of the Federal and New Jersey state constitutions prohibit a court from adjudicating matters of “ecclesiastical doctrine, cognizance and polity.” U.S. Const., amend. 1; N.J. Const., art. 2, par. 4. New Jersey courts “have long held that civil courts lack jurisdiction over spiritual matters and the administration of church affairs that do not affect the civil or property rights of individuals.” Chavis v. Rowe, 93 N.J. 103, 109 (1983). Further, the First and Fourteenth Amendments award hierarchical religious organizations the authority to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to institute tribunals for adjudicating disputes of these matters. See Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 42 U.S. 696, 724 (1976). Civil courts must give deference to the decisions imposed by ecclesiastical tribunals when hierarchical religious organizations exercise their right to create these tribunals. See Id. At 725. In Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 678 (1871), the United States Supreme Court articulated the “Hierarchical Deference Rule,” holding that a civil court must defer to the determination of the highest church judicatory that has ruled on a matter “whenever the question of discipline, or faith of or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried . . . .” The threshold inquiry to determine whether a claim is capable of adjudication by a civil court is whether the underlying dispute is “a secular one . . . or an ecclesiastical one about ‘discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law.’” See Abdelhak v. Jewish Press, 411 N.J. Super. 211, 223 (App.Div. 2009). A court must abstain from adjudicating matters that require interpretation of religious canons unless “the dispute can be resolved by the application of purely neutral principles of law.” Id. At 224.
The court noted that, in his meeting with Church representatives, Superintendent Plumstead referred to The Book of Discipline as an authority to resolve the matter. Additionally, the investigator’s report stated that Rev. Kim had violated several rules set forth in The Book of Discipline by operating the finances of the Church. Therefore, a determination of whether Rev. Kim was liable to Plaintiff under any claim would require the court to determine whether Rev. Kim violated the rules set forth in The Book of Discipline, and whether the UMC’s policy and policy permitted Rev. Kim to engage in certain financial and managerial practices. Because the court is barred from exercising jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters, the court dismissed the Plaintiff’s complaint. Additionally, Plaintiffs sought relief through the UMC’s process by gathering evidence to be presented to the UMC Superintendent, Plumstead, who then met with the Church’s Staff Parish Relations Committee to discuss disciplinary action. Had the Committee pursued a formal complaint with the bishop’s office, the bishop would then determine, considering the rules set forth in The Book of Discipline, if the evidence necessitated a hearing before the Board of Ordained Ministry Executive Committee, and potentially the imposition of a penalty. However, the Committee chose not to take any further internal church of legal action. Plaintiff, unhappy with this result, decided to separate from the UMC and sought adjudication of those previously decided ecclesiastical matters in secular court. According to the court, “Plaintiff’s recent disenchantment with the UMC does not warrant a secular court review in contravention of the long standing jurisprudence of this state’s Appellate Division, its sister states, and the Supreme Court of the United States.”
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