Belya v. Kapral is a case in which religious extremists are attempting to improperly use the “church autonomy” and “ministerial exception” doctrines to prevent individuals from accessing legal protections. Those doctrines prevent civil courts from answering strictly religious questions and from choosing religious leaders. But they do not, and should not, prevent suits against religious entities simply because they are religious.
Plaintiff Alexander Belya used to be a part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), an element of the Russian Orthodox Church. He applied for a bishop position within the church and was recognized by church leadership as having been appointed to that position. But some members of the church, including several ROCOR clergy, wrote a letter to Moscow falsely accusing Father Alexander of forging documents and fabricating his election as bishop. If that weren’t enough, those who wrote the letter shared it publicly, causing Father Alexander to be widely accused of being a liar and a fraud. Father Alexander left the church and filed a defamation lawsuit against various ROCOR members.
In response to Father Alexander’s defamation suit, the defendants moved to dismiss the case, and to block discovery, based on the church-autonomy and ministerial-exception doctrines. But these doctrines usually apply in employment-discrimination cases. Father Alexander’s defamation suit, by contrast, is not about his employment. He seeks the same protections as anyone who has falsely had their name and reputation dragged through the mud in public. So extending these doctrines to Father Alexander’s claims would represent a substantial expansion of how most courts have applied them—just one of the many ways in which extremists have pushed to expand these doctrines to make religious entities entirely free from civil laws.
When the district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss and motion to block discovery, they immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. But courts of appeals are not allowed to hear a case until the case is finally resolved by the district court. And the district court’s decision didn’t resolve the case. Quite the opposite: it simply allowed the case to proceed. Put simply, the defendants tried to skirt bedrock rules that everyone has to play by, which would make it prohibitively difficult to bring even strong, evidence-based claims against religious organizations—thus allowing them to play by different rules than everyone else.
Americans United took on Father Alexander’s representation on appeal. In late December 2021, we filed a brief on Father Alexander’s behalf in the Second Circuit. We argued, first, that because the district court’s orders were not final (and because of various procedural errors that the defendants made in the district court), the court of appeals did not have jurisdiction to take the case. Second, we argued that even if the appeals court somehow had jurisdiction, the church-autonomy and ministerial-exception doctrines did not bar Belya’s defamation claims. On March 7, 2022, AU Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard presented oral argument to the Second Circuit.
In an opinion issued on August 17, 2022, and revised on September 16, 2022, the Second Circuit unanimously agreed with us that it did not have jurisdiction, dismissed the appeal, and allowed the case to proceed in the district court. The Second Circuit also held that the church-autonomy and ministerial-exception doctrines are not jurisdictional bars that prevent courts from ever hearing disputes involving religious parties. The defendants then petitioned the full Second Circuit to rehear the appeal, which that court denied on February 8, 2023. On February 27, 2023, the defendants filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to review the case. And on May 1, 2023, Americans United filed a brief in the Supreme Court explaining why it shouldn’t take the case. The Court denied review on June 12, 2023, allowing the case to continue in the trial court.