July/August 2023 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2023

U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear AU-sponsored legal case

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has for now declined to hear an Americans United-sponsored legal case that challenges special treatment for religious groups. 

In a brief order issued June 12, the high court announced it would not hear Synod of Bishops v. Belya. 

The ruling in the lower court was favorable to Americans United, so the organization was pleased by the Supreme Court’s action.

“Religious freedom is not a license to harm others or prevent people from seeking justice in courts of law,” said Rachel Laser, AU president and CEO. “This case is far from over, but Father Alexander Belya now has a chance to vindicate his rights.

“We are facing an aggressive movement working to recast religious freedom into a weapon that would allow religious institutions to discriminate without limit or consequence,” Laser added. “AU believes religious freedom should be a shield, not a sword. Today, the Court let that principle stand.”

The Belya case focuses on Father Alexander Belya, an Orthodox Christian priest who was publicly defamed by his colleagues. 

Belya had been part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). He applied for a bishop’s position within the church, and he 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 Belya of forging documents and fabricating his election as bishop. They spread these false claims publicly on social media and others in the press. 

Belya left the church and filed a defamation lawsuit against various ROCOR members. In response to the lawsuit, the defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that church autonomy means the government cannot investigate the matter.

AU asserts that doctrines like church autonomy don’t apply in this case because Belya’s defamation suit is not about church doctrine. He seeks the same protections as anyone who has falsely had their name and reputation dragged through the mud in public. Extending these doctrines to Belya’s claims, AU says, would make it prohibitively difficult to bring strong, evidence-based claims against religious organizations — thus allowing them to play by different rules from everyone else.

Belya is represented by AU Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard and Legal Fellow Gabriela Hybel, along with co-counsel Oleg Rivkin. 

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