Controversial Ridgewood church's nondisclosure agreement nullified in Superior Court

North Jersey Record/May 22, 2019

By Tom Nobile

A nondisclosure agreement used by a Ridgewood church, described by some former members as cult-like, to allegedly block its followers from leaking secret beliefs and practices has been nullified by two Superior Court judges. 

Those practices allegedly include forced abortions, tax fraud and doomsday prophecies, according to Raymond Gonzalez, an former member of the World Mission Society Church of God, who claimed the agreement he had signed bound him to silence. 

Under the decision, issued last week, Gonzalez and others can speak freely because language in the contract was “unconscionable,” the court ruled. 

“The court has finally recognized that this confidentiality agreement was so vastly overbroad and signed under such suspicious circumstances,” said Peter Skolnik, Gonzalez’s lawyer. 

Attorneys for World Mission denied Gonzalez’s allegations of wrongdoing in a statement and vowed to “vigorously oppose any misrepresentation of the church’s religious beliefs.” 

The South Korea-based church is a global enterprise that boasts 2.5 million members in 2,500 churches throughout 175 countries, with at least 25 affiliated churches along the East Coast, including the one in Ridgewood. The church follows many traditional Christian teachings but breaks from the mainstream in its devotion to Zahng Gil-Jah, a 75-year-old woman whom members call God the Mother or Heavenly Mother.

Gonzalez, of Elmwood Park, claims he was recruited into World Mission as an 18-year-old and rose to the rank of deacon within the church.

He left the congregation in December 2012 after becoming disillusioned with church teachings on the so-called Mayan apocalypse, which was a belief that an ancient Mayan calendar carved in stone that ended in the equivalent of December 2012 predicted the end of the world.

Five years later, he filed suit to dissolve the confidentiality agreement he signed before leaving.  

In its decision, the court found that Gonzalez signed the agreement in a group setting and was “not afforded an opportunity to confer with counsel regarding the legal effects and consequences.”

Additionally, the contract was framed not by attorneys, but by other church members, the ruling said. 

“There is no proof that any legal professional was consulted throughout the drafting process,” the court stated. 

World Mission attorneys had argued in court hearings that the agreement was necessary to protect the church’s doctrinal material and the personal information of members. Gonzalez, they argued, was privy to the personal financial information of church followers as a deacon and member of the IT department. He himself also had a hand in adopting the contract, they said. 

“As a deacon, he was entrusted with maintaining the confidentiality of private individuals who shared their most personal experiences with him during counseling sessions,” World Mission legal counsel said. “This position put him into possession of the church’s confidential, and constitutionally protected, religious and administrative materials.”

The agreement, however, did not clearly define what information is protected, and it deemed confidential “all information concerning” the church, a provision the court found overreaching. 

Gonzalez also alleged, among other things, that followers who did not sign were told they "would be punished by God and sent to a fiery hell.”

“It could not be considered valid,” Skolnik said of the agreement. 

The court’s decision noted that recent trends in public policy have sought to reduce the scope of confidentiality agreements. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill in March that restricts the use of such contracts in public employment and settlement agreements that in the past were used to suppress sexual harassment cases and information in the public’s interest. 

“This court finds that the NDA in question is violative of public policy, and is not in the public interest for this court to enforce,” the decision said. 

Eight former members have offered accounts to The Record of being lured slowly into the church without being told all of its beliefs, and then being frightened into devotion and donating large amounts of money by talk of the supposed end of the world in 2012. 

Aside from the doomsday prophecies, Gonzalez alleged the church was coercing World Mission members who get pregnant to have abortions, arranging marriages between total strangers and lying to immigration officials, according to his lawsuit.

World Mission attorneys denied those allegations and said the church never intended to prevent Gonzalez from discussing his personal experiences. 

A separate suit filed by Michelle Colon, a former member, claims she agreed to donate at least 10 percent of her income as a gift to the Heavenly Mother. The church, she alleges, "purports to be a nonprofit charitable church, but is actually a profit-making global enterprise" that provides money to the mother church in South Korea and the church's leaders.

The court’s recent decision also addressed Colon’s allegations that the church declined to release documents for her case. In response, the court appointed a special master to review documents that the church previously withheld for alleged attorney-client reasons, and determine their admissibility in court, according to the decision. 

Gonzalez is a witness in Colon’s case. 

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