A New Jersey pastor may have a viable lawsuit against his previous employers, the state appeals court ruled in a decision earlier last month. Seung Joon Lee, the former pastor of a Korean-speaking congregation at Hope Presbyterian Church in Teaneck, was fired amidst accusations of theft, and personal injury lawyers in New Jersey say that his claim of defamation has been allowed to continue in state courts.
Lee was accused of stealing money from the congregation at a prayer meeting, when Deacon Jae Sim and his wife, deaconess Hee Sim, claimed that they had made a $20,000 donation to the community that had never appeared in the official record. The couple claimed that Lee had asked them to make their donation in cash, and they alleged that he had taken it for himself. The church elders filed an accusation with the Eastern Korean Presbytery, which governs all affairs of the area’s Presbyterian churches, seeking Lee’s removal from his pastoral position.
The church elders also led a public campaign against Lee, including a visible protest outside the church with an elder and the community’s treasurer, holding a sign that read, in Korean, “He who stole money must go.” Although the Presbytery was unable to find evidence to prove that Lee had taken the money, the pastor was asked to resign, and forced to find new work with his damaged reputation as a pastor. Lee resigned, but filed a vindication request with the Synod of the Northeast.
The former pastor also filed a lawsuit in Bergen County, claiming that the church elders had defamed him. In Lee v. Sim, the appellate court decided that Lee could not sue to regain his former position as Hope Church’s pastor, in accordance with the Establishment Clause. The state courts cannot impinge on the Presbytery’s right to decide who can and cannot serve as minister of the congregation. But the Establishment Clause, included in the First Amendment under the rights to freedom of religion, does not rule out defamation lawsuits in a job dismissal or forced resignation. According to the court, “the alleged defamatory statements [made] as part of their efforts to remove their clergyman” does not necessarily restrict the lawsuit to an ecclesiastical matter.
The appellate court ruled that the case rested on evidence primarily in Korean, and a translation to English would be needed to determine how much damage was done to Lee’s reputation in the church leaders’ accusations. The final decision on whether Lee’s claim is legitimate will have to wait until the translations are available. The courts will also have to rule on Lee’s decision to first file a claim with the Synod, which is a religious institution. The ecclesiastical investigations into Lee’s time as pastor will have to be conducted first, before Lee can file a personal injury suit on the defamation claims.
At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, a New Jersey law firm, our personal injury attorneys represent anyone who has been a victim of defamation, false accusations, or slander, and anyone whose damaged reputation has hurt their career opportunities.