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Dragging the church into court

A jilted priest is allowed to sue over alleged defamation

A Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York City iStock.com/demerzel21

Dragging the church into court

A divided federal appeals court agreed Wednesday that a former priest’s lawsuit against the Russian Orthodox Church can move forward—despite church autonomy principles.

Alexander Belya, a priest in the American branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, says he was elected by fellow bishops as bishop of Miami in December 2018. Things fell apart when a group of church leaders opposed to his appointment sent a letter to church head Hilarion Kapral questioning the authenticity of letters announcing his appointment. When Kapral suspended Belya pending an investigation, the priest left for the Greek Orthodox Church.

In August 2020, Belya sued the church and its leaders, claiming defamation and seeking damages for injury to his reputation. Attorneys for the church moved to dismiss the lawsuit immediately, citing the church autonomy doctrine—a rule that protects church decisions about internal governance from court second-guessing.

In May 2021, a federal court rejected the motion, setting the case for discovery and then trial. When the church asked to appeal the motion, the court denied that request as well, adding that the church’s arguments were factual disputes that could be resolved under “neutral principles of law.”

When the church appealed anyway, a three-judge panel of the Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, ruling that the lower court’s order was not among the narrow class of nonfinal rulings it could review on appeal.

The church then asked for en banc review by the full 13-judge appellate court. Last week, the court split down the middle after one judge recused himself. With no tie-breaker, that meant the lower court ruling stood.

Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier Jr., joined by four of the five other judges, framed the issue as a narrow procedural one. “At this stage, Belya’s claim is a genuine defamation claim that, as the dissent’s refusal to take it at face value suggests, would not implicate church autonomy,” wrote Lohier. A church autonomy defense was not unavailable, just premature, the judge added, meaning the trial court could take it up after allowing some discovery of facts.

Dissenters, led by Circuit Judge Michael Park, stressed how that reasoning threatened to undercut protections under the church autonomy doctrine. “Simply accepting Belya’s styling of the case as a defamation claim, and reasoning that such a claim can be decided with neutral principles of law, elevates form over substance—almost any ministerial dispute could be pled to avoid questions of religious doctrine,” wrote Park. “Taken to its logical endpoint, this approach would eviscerate the church autonomy doctrine.”

For Daniel Blomberg, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented the church, the majority’s opinion undermines the solid protection courts have afforded church decisions about doctrine and internal governance. “If you’re having to sit there and go through depositions and turn over all your internal documents … there’s just a chilling effect on you in your job, [in that] you’re not going to be making the decisions based on what you think is best,” Blomberg said.

That would be true in any church context, he said, whether a presbytery sued after deposing a teaching elder or a Catholic diocese sued after defrocking a priest. “They invite the courts into what is an internal disciplinary dispute,” Blomberg said, forcing churches to make such sensitive decisions with an eye not only toward conduct and doctrine but also toward how things may later play out in court.

Another Supreme Court appeal by Becket raises similar legal questions. Last week, Faith Bible Chapel in Colorado appealed a ruling allowing former Faith Christian Academy chaplain Gregory Tucker to proceed in a lawsuit against the school. As Blomberg explained, both cases deal with what, not whom, the church autonomy doctrine covers: Is it a defense to be raised in the course of litigation or an immunity that bars litigation from the outset?

Blomberg said both cases also involve an issue that brings together legal scholars from the right and left and reaches all religions, from Jews to Muslims to Christians. “They’re all going to come together and say this is a very important case the court should resolve because this is not a partisan issue,” he emphasized. “It’s an issue of fundamental principle.”

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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