SCOTUS denies review of Buddhist temple case

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NEW YORK –  Since 2011 the China Buddhist Association (CBA) has been involved in a legal battle over the excommunication of members and the management of its organization.  The original 2011 Tung v China Buddhist Association went through the New York courts, landing it at the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, on Jan 9, certiorari was denied, allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand.

“The court will not intervene in matters that are predominantly religious disagreements.” (New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Nov 13, 2014)

The China Buddhist Association was formed and incorporated in 1963 by Master Mew Fung Chen to support the Chinese immigrant population in Manhattan and, eventually, the growing community in Flushing, Queens. CBA thrived, and in 1970 the organization was granted tax-exempt status as a religious organization. It purchased property: the Fa Wang Temple in Manhattan and, later, the Chi Hang temple in Flushing.

Today, the Chi Hang temple serves as the organization’s headquarters. Its services are reportedly offered in Mandarin and English. CBA is recognized as an important Dharma center in the region. In 2013, CBA celebrated its 50th birthday with a two-day celebration, including a number of other Buddhist leaders and members of the community. The organization was presented with gifts and congratulations for its “historic milestone.”

2013 50th Celebration parade [Courtesy]

2013 50th celebration parade [Courtesy]

During one of CBA’s growth periods in the mid-1990s, Master Chen hired Master Ming Tung to be the resident monk at the organization’s Manhattan location. According to the 2014 court ruling, “Among Master Tung’s duties were teaching new members the manners of worship, praying, chanting, worshiping, preaching and conducting Buddhist ceremonies.” Master Chen resided at CBA’s newly-established headquarters in Flushing.

According to the same document, Master Chen reports that Master Tung eventually “went rogue,” which what eventually led to the legal complications. ” [Master Tung] showed a lapse in faith, promoted disharmony within the CBA, disobeyed his (Master Chen’s) authority, strayed from the path of righteousness and engaged in wayward behavior contrary to Buddhist tenets. This struggle has, at times, escalated into violence, necessitating police intervention, and there have been protests at the Manhattan temple.”

In 2010, Master Chen, on behalf of CBA, severed all ties with Master Tung. Then, in 2011, he closed down the Manhattan temple, and excommunicated its members, after allegedly holding a CBA members meeting and vote.

Those actions prompted a lawsuit, in which Master Tung claimed that Master Chen had overstepped his authority, not abiding by the bylaws of the organization. The 2012 ruling by the New York Supreme Court (Judge Geoffrey D. Wright) affirmed that conclusion. Judge Wright declared the 2011 meeting and any associated temple decisions invalid, and required CBA to hold a new all-members meeting, inviting Master Tung and all those excommunicated.

According to court documents, Master Tung and his followers’ only goal was to convene the entire organization in order to legally split CBA and its holdings into two distinct temples.

CBA appealed the 2012 ruling, arguing: “The petition [by Tung et. al.] should be dismissed because the relief sought by petitioners cannot be decided through the application of neutral principles of law, and that by invalidating May 2011 meeting and election, and directing that petitioners be permitted to participate in a future CBA meeting, the court interfered with religious matters which are constitutionally protected.”

In 2014, the case was reviewed by the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, who overturned the lower court’s decision. Delivering the opinion, Judge Judith Gische writes, “The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which is binding on the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees religious bodies ‘independence from secular control or manipulation — in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine’ ”

In that 2014 decision, there was one dissenting opinion by Judge Tom Peter.  He agreed with the lower court, believing the matter to be purely organizational and not religious at all. In his dissent opinion, he writes, “The presiding monk Master Tung was in charge of the Manhattan temple and had been conducting the affairs and business of the temple for many years. Significantly, the unauthorized actions of the purported trustees in closing the Manhattan temple and expelling its congregants deprived the resident clergy of both their ministry and their residence, and the long-term congregant of her place of worship.”

He concludes that Master Chen demonstrated “utter disregard of law and the association’s bylaws,” and violated the corporation’s own rules, which are not religion-based.

However, the other four appellate judges disagreed. Judge Gische wrote, “Although a court may determine whether a religious organization has adhered to its membership requirements by examining corporate documents, such as the bylaws, here the bylaws are unhelpful because they are silent on that issue.” The decision notes that a ruling in favor of Master Tung and an overturning of the CBA’s own May 2011 meeting would naturally include an overturning of the excommunication, which places the court in a position of making an ecclesiastical judgement.

Not satisfied with that decision, Master Tung sent a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Jan. 9. declined to hear the case, letting the appellate court’s ruling stand.

Within the appellate court’s summary, there are a number of cited cases that involve the interplay between court action and religious organizations. These cases demonstrate decisions made concerning if, when and how the secular courts can interfere in debates within religious communities. The cases range from problems within Jewish temples to Catholic churches. The specific religion itself is not of primary concern. In fact, the Tung v China Buddhist Association case was just cited in a more recent 2016 case, The Bronx Islamic Society Inc. v. Terence H. Ally, Mohammed Raffeek, Bakesh and Mohamed Shabir Khan, which also involves membership concerns.

While these specific cases do not involve Pagan, Heathen, or polytheist practices, they could have. The CBA lawsuit and others like it point to the ongoing push and pull within the nuanced relationship between secular law and religious organizational administration, and these rulings do demonstrate what could potentially happen, in varied situations, if a Pagan or Heathen nonprofit organization took one of its own internal disputes to the U.S. courts.