South Korean Pastor Sues the Methodist Church for Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ People
East Asia and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
Pastor Lee Dong-hwan has filed a case to the Seoul Central District Court against the punishment he received from the Korean Methodist Church for praying for and blessing LGBTQ people (Jeong, 2023). The ‘joint countermeasures committee for the trial of Pastor Donghwan Lee' is composed of Pastor Lee and about 20 human rights and LGBT organizations (Song, 2023).
At the Incheon Queer Culture Festival in 2019, Pastor Lee took part in an LGBTQ Blessing Ceremony. Article 3, Paragraph 8 of the Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Church stipulates 'an act in favour of or sympathy with homosexuality' as a crime (Song, 2023). Members of the church accused Pastor Lee of this crime, and the Methodist Association's Trial Committee decided on a 'two-year suspension' punishment for the Pastor. Pastor Lee appealed, but the Methodist Trial Committee dismissed it in October of last year (Jeong, 2023).
ThereafterFollowing, Pastor Lee established 'Q&A', a Christian LGBT organization, and served as its secretary-general (Jeong, 2023). He carried out activities for sexual minorities and activities to improve awareness of Korean churches. This was also not taken well with the Methodist Church (Jeong, 2023).
According to Pastor Lee has said, "This is not a fight for Lee Dong-hwan, an individual. This trial is a fight to change the Methodist Church, which has been stained with hatred and discrimination. I hope this trial will sound an alarm bell against the stubbornness and prejudice of the whole church, which has taken the lead in hatred and discrimination against minorities in the name of God" (Song, 2023).
Attorney Park Han-hee, one of Pastor Lee's legal representatives, has said, "Prior to filing the lawsuit, both the attorneys and the pastor were deeply concerned. In many previous rulings challenging the illegality of church trials, the court's attitude was that judicial review should refrain from internal religious disputes. Nevertheless, this case requires active intervention by the court. They are violating fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and religious activities. We urge the court to clearly show what the role of the court is as the last bastion of minority human rights" (Song, 2023).
South Korean Courts have often taken the position that it refraineds from reviewing issues related to disciplinary actions within religious organizations, based on the constitutional freedom of religion (Jeong, 2023). However, there have been exceptions where there is a dispute over a particular right or legal relationship of an individual (Jeong, 2023). Pastor Lee's legal aides believe that this lawsuit falls under this exception (Jeong, 2023). Considering that pastors and elders within the denomination are taking steps to further accuse Pastor Lee, they worry that such punishment for LGBT support will inevitably be repeated (Jeong, 2023). Choi Jeong-kyu, an attorney at the Wongok Law Office representing Pastor Lee, said, "If the church's suspension judgment is not settled, the situation in which Pastor Lee is accused and disciplined will inevitably happen again" (Jeong, 2023). It is said that the court's intervention is necessary because this provision promotes discrimination and hatred towards LGBTQ people (Jeong, 2023).
In line with this, Pastor Lee's side argues that the provision violates various basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution (Jeong, 2023). Those on Pastor Lee's side have said, "Because any act of expression intended to lead positive discussions on sexual minorities is prohibited, the freedom to express individual opinions has been violated" (Jeong, 2023). Pastor Lee believes that the provision also violates freedom of religion (Jeong, 2023). “By banning the act of praying that sexual minorities should also be blessed, we are limiting the expression or action according to individual religious convictions,” he said (Jeong, 2023).
The view that freedom of expression and religion should not hinder the rights of minorities against discrimination is one that is held by international organisations, experts and legal bodies (Scaffidi, 2020). Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, has stated that “I firmly reject any claim that religious beliefs can be invoked as a legitimate ‘justification’ for violence or discrimination against women, girls or LGBT+ people”, noting that “the right to freedom of religion protects individuals and not religions as such” (Scaffidi, 2020). Such views and interpretations of international human rights law have been presented to and discussed with the UN Human Rights Council (Scaffidi, 2020).
Sources and further reading:
Jung H, “‘성소수자 축복’ 소송, 교회 편견 깨려는 싸움” (The Kyunghyang Shinmun, February 10, 2023) <https://weekly.khan.co.kr/khnm.html?mode=view&code=115&artid=202302101137251> accessed February 10, 2023.
Song J, “'성소수자' 축도 이동환 목사, 교단 상대 '정직 2년' 무효 소송” (No Cut News, February 2, 2023) <https://www.nocutnews.co.kr/news/5888966> accessed February 10, 2023.
Song C, “'성소수자 축복' 목사가 시한 끝난 징계에 소송하는 이유는” (미디어스, February 3, 2023) <http://www.mediaus.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=303581> accessed February 10, 2023.
Scaffidi E, “Use of religious beliefs to justify rights violations must be outlawed says UN expert” (UN News, March 20, 2020) <https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1058411> accessed February 10, 2023.