344 US 94 (Decided November 24, 1952)
Bill Long 10/05/04
Someone once said that you can study the social history of our time by waiting a generation and then reading the Supreme Court decisions of that time. Indeed, it takes about 30 years for a powerful social movement to coalesce, make its presence known, enter into conflict with previous systems of thought, lead to legal cases and, finally, present issues that need to be sorted out by the US Supreme Court. For example, the Cleveland case from 1946 was a case extending the meaning of the Mann Act of 1910. This case deals with considerable fallout from the Russian Revolution in 1917 and its effect on the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States.
In this case the Court reversed (8-1, Jackson dissenting) the New York Court of Appeals and held that in a suit to determine which prelate was entitled to use and occupancy of a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York City, the Courts and legislature had, under the Free Exericse clause, no authority to render a decision or pass a law. Thus, the New York Religious Corporations Law, which recognized the legitimacy of the American Church and prelate, was declared unconstitutional. The dissent, as well as the NY Court of Appeals, had considered the issue to be one either of statutory interpretation or simple property law that did not impinge on the Free Exercise clause.
Facts in Brief
The ministry of the Russian Orthodox Church ("Church") in the US gradually changed from a missionary field (19th century) to a diocese with its own archibishop (beginning in 1904). The appointment of the archibishop came from the Holy Synod of Russia. In the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Church was drawn into the maelstrom. The American Archibishop was imprisoned and subsequently died in 1925. Before his death, however, he named three bishops as "locum tenens" for the patriarchal throne, one of whom appointed one of the appellants, Mr. Benjamin, as Archibishop.
Meanwhile, the American Church held a "sobor" (authoritative synod) in 1924 and claimed its temporary independence from the new Russian Orthodox Church (which was considered to be under Soviet control), and proceeded to name its own Archbishop. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, subsequent sobors announced the autonomy of the American Church. "Spiritual and brotherly relations" with all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad were maintained, but the American Church refused to recognize the administrative control of Moscow.
In the late 1940s New York updated its Religious Corporations Law to provide that every Russian Orthodox church in New York "shall recognize and be and remain subject to the jurisdiction and authority of the general convention (sobor)....held in New York...in 1937" (where independence from the Russian leadership was finalized).
The case was reversed several times in the lower courts, with the NY Court of Appeals concluding that the legislature was within the bounds of its authority to conclude, as a matter of reasonable belief, that the conditions in Russia justified the State in enacting a law to free the American group from possible infiltration of atheistic or subversive influences in the Church.
Justice Reed, writing for the majority, resurrected a case from 1871 regarding the ownership and control of a Presbyterian Church congregation in Kentucky in the wake of the Civil War to deal with the issue. In stating that the civil law would not intervene in the internal nature of church disputes, the Court said:
"The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions fo faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned....But it woud be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed."
Thus, if the matter concerned "questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law," the Court must decline to enter into the fray. In this case the basic issue was the right to use St. Nicholas Cathedral and that right is based upon one's belief on which person was the duly installed archibishop. While the respect for the NY Court of Appeals is clear, the Supreme Court concluded that the effect of its action was "pass(ing) the control of matters strictly ecclesiastical from one church authority to another. It thus intrudes for the benefit of one segment of a church the power of the state into the forbidden area of religious freedom contrary to the principles of the First Amendment."
Concurring and Dissenting Opinions
Justice Frankfurter, in concurrence, stated what he considered to be the vulnerabilty of the New York action: "The consideration which permeates the court's opinion below would give each State the right to assess the circumstances in the foreign political entanglements of its religious bodies that make for danger to the State, and the power, resting on plausible legislative findings, to divest such bodies of spiritual authority and of the temporal property which symbolizes it." This could not be permitted. It is not the province of the "governments of this Union to reinforce the loyalty of their citizens by deciding who is the true exponent of their religion."
Justice Robert Jackson dissented because he felt the issue was one of state property and trust law. "If the Fourteenth Amendment is to be interpreted to leave anything to the courts of a state to decide without our interference, I should suppose it would be claims to ownership or possession of real estate within its borders and the vexing technical questions pertaining to the creation, interpretation, termination and enforcement of uses and trusts, even though they are for religious and charitable purposes. This controversy, I believe, is a matter for settlement by state law and not within the proper province of this Court."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long