(Reuters) - A New York appeals court has refused to wade into a dispute between a Buddhist master and more than 500 congregants he expelled before shuttering their Manhattan temple.
The court on Thursday said involving itself in claims that Master Mew Fung Chen broke the law in 2011 when he excommunicated the members, including a monk and a nun, would violate the constitution’s First Amendment.
“To consider whether a spiritual leader wields too much power or authority over his congregants ... places the court in the position of evaluating ecclesiastical doctrine, law, (and) practices,” Justice Judith Gische wrote.
Alexander Kelly, a lawyer for the monk who brought the suit, said he would ask New York’s highest court to hear the case.
According to the decision, Chen said he was acting to prevent “spiritual pollution” of the China Buddhist Association, which he founded in Queens in 1963, when he kicked out the congregants.
Afterwards he held a meeting with the remaining 110 members, all of whom worshipped at the association’s temple in Queens, where a vote was held to close the Manhattan temple, according to the court.
The monk, Ming Tung, sued Chen, claiming he violated the association’s bylaws.
In 2012 a state judge ordered Chen to hold a new meeting that included the excommunicated members.
The appeals court reversed that decision on Thursday. In dissent, Justice Peter Tom said the religious issues were separate from the question of whether Chen had violated his association’s bylaws.
Tom said the First Amendment “is not a sword to permit a religious leader to exercise totalitarian control over denominational assets in contravention of the system of corporate democracy.”
An attorney for the China Buddhist Association did not return a request for comment.
The case is Ming Tung v. China Buddhist Association, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, No. 11572.
Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Ted Botha and Alan Crosby