Belya v. Kapral et. al
Father Alexander Belya claims that he was elected as a Vicar Bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). The Church and its leadership insist that he was not, and that he is not qualified to be a bishop. In a letter to the Church’s senior leadership, several ROCOR leaders expressed concern over the credibility of the supposed election and with Father Alexander’s performance of his priestly duties. The head of ROCOR—Metropolitan Hilarion—then suspended Father Alexander from performing priestly duties pending an investigation. Rather than pursue an appeal within the Church, Father Alexander left ROCOR and sued his former church, Metropolitan Hilarion, and other Church leaders for defamation. While courts across the country have made it clear that civil courts should not be involved in the internal affairs of religious organizations, a federal court in New York denied ROCOR’s request to have the case dismissed. Father Alexander’s claims ask the court to punish the Church for exercising its right to choose its own clergy, which violates both the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
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ROCOR: A History of dealing with Big Government
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) began in the 1920s after a contingent of Russian Orthodox priests and bishops were forced out of Russia by the Bolshevik government. Following their exile, the bishops went to Western Europe and eventually to the United States.
Over the past century, ROCOR has grown across the world, especially in the United States. Today, of their 400 parishes worldwide, 232 are within the U.S. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate agreed to an act of communion in May 2007, reestablishing their canonical ties.
An Internal Dispute
Father Alexander Belya was a ROCOR priest for several years. He claims that in December 2018, ROCOR’s Synod of Bishops—the executive organ of the Church’s highest ecclesiastical body—elected him to be the Bishop of Miami. The Church maintains that Father Alexander was not elected. In response to Father Alexander’s claim, several ROCOR leaders wrote a letter to the Synod describing complaints about Father Alexander’s conduct as a priest that violated church laws. The letter also noted several irregularities under church law in the documents supposedly showing that Father Alexander was elected as Bishop of Miami and called on Metropolitan Hilarion to suspend Father Alexander from priestly duties and to open a Church investigation into the alleged election. Metropolitan Hilarion then suspended Father Alexander. Rather than submit to investigation or appeal the suspension within the Church, Father Alexander left ROCOR and sued the Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, and other Church leaders for defamation. He claims damages for the loss of income from members leaving his congregation, and for “severely impaired reputation and standing” within the ROCOR community.
Defending Church Autonomy:
Religious freedom has allowed ROCOR to thrive in the United States. This freedom includes protections from government interference in churches’ internal religious affairs—especially in their decisions related to the selection, discipline, or removal of clergy. But this right means little if a church can be sued for communicating these decisions to its members. After the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss Father Alexander’s suit, Becket stepped in and appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. On August 17, 2022, the Second Circuit ruled against the church, declining to protect ROCOR’s First Amendment rights. Becket plans to appeal the decision. The Church is also represented by Feerick Nugent MacCartney, PLLC.
Importance for Religious Liberty:
- Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: Churches and other religious groups have the right to select, discipline, and, if necessary, remove their leaders without government interference. Only the church—not a court—gets to say who the bishop is. This right is protected by a First Amendment principle called the “ministerial exception.”
- Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.