On May 5, 2023, The Honorable Terry Green, Los Angeles Circuit Court Judge entered a judgment dismissing a religious property lawsuit filed by the Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad denomination (“the KPCA”), against the individual session / board of director members of Young-Nak Church Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, California and Young-Nak Church. This religious property dispute over a 9,000-member congregation having vast real estate holdings near downtown Los Angeles was largely premised on Young-Nak Church’s disaffiliation from the KPCA and its subsequent efforts to maintain rights to control its own property.
Daniel Dalton, along with Larry Opalewski and Zoe Grenfell of Dalton & Tomich PLC represented the session members with Andrew Zepeda and Elizabeth Tran served as local counsel. Daniel Lula represented Young-Nak Church.
Young-Nak Church, Inc. Leaves the KPCA Denomination.
Young-Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles Corporation incorporated by filing Articles of Incorporation on November 9, 1973, as a nonprofit religious corporation under the State of California, located at 1721 North Broadway, Los Angeles, California 90031. The Articles of Incorporation confer sole title to all real and personal property in and to Young-Nak Church. Young-Nak Church was formed as and remains a separate legal entity. The governance of Young-Nak Church is determined under the provisions of the California Corporations Code Sections 9110 et seq. The Articles of Incorporation have never been amended.
Three years later, Young-Nak Church voluntarily joined with several other Korean Presbyterian churches in forming the “Korean Presbyterian Church in America,” now known as the Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad (” KPCA”). When associated with the KPCA, Young-Nak Church adhered to the KPCA Constitution. Moreover, as a founding congregation of the KPCA, Young-Nak Church participated in KPCA’s organizational meetings. However, at no point in time has Young Nak Church amended its Articles of Incorporation to alter title to or add the KPCA as a party with interest in any church property.
Young-Nak Church has acquired multiple parcels of real property over the years, all of which have been conveyed via grant deeds. Such deeds conferred sole title of the real property in Young-Nak Church. Moreover, Young-Nak Church has created and maintained several bank accounts for its monetary assets.
On October 2, 2021, the Pastors and Session Elders held a Session meeting and recommended to the members of Young-Nak Church that they should hold a vote to amend the Church’s Bylaws and to disaffiliate from the KPCA denomination. On October 4, the Church received a letter from the KPCA’s Officer’s Committee requesting that they do not hold a vote for the congregation to disaffiliate from the denomination. The KPCA followed up on October 6, 2021, sending the Church received an “Administrative Order” from the KPCA’s Officers Committee, demanding that it not hold a congregational meeting to vote on disaffiliation. However, this Officers Committee possessed no authority from the General Assembly (as required under the KPCA Constitution) to issue such an order. Therefore, the Church proceeded to hold its properly called, noticed, and constitutional Congregational Meeting on October 10, 2021. The members attending such Meeting overwhelmingly voted to approve amending the bylaws and to disaffiliate from the KPCA denomination.
Following the Church’s disaffiliation, the KPCA held its October 20, 2021, hearing for Pastor Park, which he did not attend. The hearing did not address the Accusation at all but instead focused on the conduct of the disaffiliation vote following the Administrative Order not to conduct such a vote. The members of the tribunal ruled against Pastor Park and expelled him from the KPCA notwithstanding the fact that because of Young-Nak Church disaffiliating, he was no longer a member of the KPCA. The tribunal also purported to excommunicate the other Individual Defendants from the KPCA even though none of them had been provided with notice of the hearing or charges made against them.
As a result of these events, the KPCA subsequently filed suit against individual Pastors and Session Elders (also known as the Board of Directors of Young-Nak Church), in its attempt to gain exclusive control over real and personal church property. Notably, the Plaintiff- KPCA did not file suit against Young-Nak Church itself.
Legal Arguments allowing Young-Nak Church to Retain its Property.
From a legal perspective, there were three legal questions for the Court to consider.
- Whether Young-Nak Church needed permission to disaffiliate from the KPCA denomination.When associated with the denomination, the Church was governed by the KPCA Constitution. California law provides courts must defer to the highest ecclesiastical authority in church property disputes which involve a point of doctrine. Pursuant to the KPCA Constitution, a Congregational Meeting may be called by the Senior Pastor of a local church with concurrence of the Session, one week prior to the meeting. Matters permitted to be transacted at a Congregational Meeting include a vote on disaffiliation of two third of affirmative votes of the members attending such meeting.
- Whether Young-Nak Church properly executed the amendment of its bylaws to effect disaffiliation. California law applies “neutral principles of corporate governance” when faced with a straightforward legal question. Neither Young-Nak Church’s Articles of Incorporation or its bylaws ties of governance of the Church directly to the KPCA. The Articles of Incorporation do not reference the KPCA or its Constitution which means that the by-laws and whatever they may say regarding the KPCA, and its Constitution can be freely amended to omit any reference to the KPCA. Rather, as a separate legal entity, Young-Nak Church’s governance is determined by California Corporations Code Sections 9110 et seq. Lastly, by the time Young-Nak Church proceeded with amending its bylaws, the Church had properly voted to disaffiliate from the KPCA. Thus, any general oversight provisions the Presbytery is claimed to hold over governing document amendments, is inapplicable as Young-Nak Church was no longer associated with the Western Presbytery.
- Whether the KPCA’s Officers Committee had the authority to attempt the halt of Young-Nak Church’s vote on October 10, 2021. The KPCA Constitution definitively provides that each governing body’s jurisdictional reach is limited by its own jurisdiction. The Constitution and the General Assembly’s own Rules of the General Meeting specifically outline the procedure and requirements this governing body must abide by and comply with. This includes specified authority the General Assembly’s Officers Committee may possess or obtain, by again, complying with the stated rules. However, in applying the relevant established rules in this matter, the Officers Committee did not have any authority to issue an Administrative Order prior to the October 10th vote, because the General Assembly did not authorize it to issue such Order.
The Court found that the Individual Defendants who are Session Members of the Church appropriately administered and carried out Young-Nak Church’s disaffiliation in accordance with the KPCA Constitution and corporation bylaws. California law, drawing from Jones v. Wolf, 443 US 595 (1979) in part, provides state courts may resolve church property disputes through use of neutral principles of law, analyzing sources such as deeds, articles of incorporation, bylaws, and the constitution and rules of the general church. Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church v. California Presbytery, 77 Cal. App. 4th 1069 (2000) as modified (Feb. 9, 2000).
To determine proper control over the disputed property, the Court found that there must be a determination as to whether Young-Nak Church properly separated from the KPCA denomination. Specifically, whether Young-Nak Church required permission of or from the KPCA to disaffiliate. Such determination requires neutral principles of law be applied to the analysis of the Church’s deeds, Articles of Incorporation, bylaws, and KPCA Constitution.
Objective analysis revealed accordingly that there is nothing in Young-Nak Church’s Articles of Incorporation nor bylaws requiring permission from a governing body within the KPCA to separate from the denomination. With respect to the KPCA Constitution, California law establishes interpretation of writing should be given its clear, plain meaning. Even if the meaning was not clear from the text of the Constitution, California’s Civil Code section 1654 provides “In cases of uncertainty not removed by the preceding rules, the language of a contract should be interpreted most strongly against the party who caused the uncertainty to exist.” Oakland-Alameda Cnty. Coliseum Auth. v. Golden State Warriors, LLC, 53 Cal. App. 5th 807, 822 (2020), review denied (Dec. 9, 2020).
In applying relevant California law to this matter, the Constitution clearly establishes that Young-Nak Church did not need permission from the KPCA to disaffiliate. The KPCA Constitution states a Congregational Meeting may be called by the Senior Pastor of a local church, with concurrence of the Session, one week prior to such Meeting. Thus, a local church is authorized to hold such a meeting through its moderator and elected Session. Accordingly, summary judgment was granted in favor of the local church.
If you wish to leave your denomination and want to discuss the issues related to trust clauses or constitutions that infer that the denomination desires to take property or replace leadership, please contact Daniel Dalton to discuss your matter in greater detail.