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

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


The U.S. Supreme Court has for now declined to hear two Americans United-sponsored legal cases that challenge special treatment for religious groups. 

In a brief order issued June 12, the high court announced it would not hear Faith Bible Chapel International v. Tucker and Synod of Bishops v. Belya. 

Tucker and family: Wins his day in court

In both instances, the rulings in the lower courts were 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. “These cases are far from over, but Gregg Tucker and Father Alexander Belya now have a chance to vindicate their 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 Tucker case concerns Gregg Tucker, an exemplary teacher and dean of student life who was fired by a Colorado Christian school for trying to address pervasive racism. 

Tucker worked for 14 years at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada. After he and his wife adopted a daughter, Daniela, who is Black, some students began to call Tucker and his family racial slurs. Tucker also witnessed unchecked racism by students at the school.

To deal with these issues, Tucker sought permission from school officials to organize a symposium for students in January 2018 to address racism. While the event was overwhelmingly well-received, a handful of parents whose children were the worst offenders of racist behavior objected and demanded that Tucker be fired. The school stripped him of some of his duties and eventually fired him.

Tucker filed a federal lawsuit in June 2019, arguing that the school violated his civil rights by retaliating against him when he opposed the school’s racially hostile environment. The school responded by trying to exploit a legal doctrine called the “ministerial exception” to avoid responsibility for allowing Tucker to suffer racially motivated harassment at work and unjustly firing him. 

The ministerial exception allows religious employers to avoid liability when, among other things, they fire “ministers” — vital preachers and teachers of the faith. But Tucker, AU argues, is not a minister; he was not responsible for teaching theology, had no important religious functions as a part of his job and was explicitly told by the school that he was not a minister when he inquired about a tax deduction available only to ministers. 

Lower federal courts have ruled that the case can proceed, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the matter means that AU can ensure that Tucker has his day in court.

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 other 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.

Tucker and Belya are represented by AU Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard and Legal Fellow Gabriela Hybel, along with co-counsel Bradley A. Levin, Jeremy A. Sitcoff, and Peter G. Friesen (for Tucker) and Oleg Rivkin (for Belya). 


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