Americans United for Separation of Church and State celebrated today’s opinion by a federal appeals court that allows a defamation case filed by an Orthodox Christian priest to proceed against the church officials who libeled him and destroyed his reputation in his community.
Father Alexander Belya was falsely accused of forging documents to gain a position as Bishop of Miami in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. He was libeled by church officials who dragged his reputation through the mud in letters and social media posts. The defamation severely hampered his prospects for future employment.
After he filed his federal defamation case, Belya v. Kapral, in August 2020, the defendants argued that two esoteric legal concepts – the church-autonomy doctrine and ministerial exception – shield them from litigation or any requirement to answer for their unlawful behavior in a court of law. Those doctrines were originally intended to protect religious organizations’ religious decisions. It would be a remarkable expansion of those doctrines to apply them to Father Belya’s defamation claims and dismiss his lawsuit, which is what the defendants sought.
On Wednesday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant the defendants’ untimely appeal or their request to dismiss the case, allowing Father Belya’s case to proceed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. As the 2nd Circuit’s opinion notes, “[S]imply having a religious association on one side of the ‘v’ does not automatically mean a district court must dismiss the case or limit discovery.”
“Religious organizations are not above the law,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Churches don’t get to rewrite the rules of legal procedure by claiming a religious defense. The courts should not allow religious freedom to be distorted as a license to deny people basic civil rights.
“The court’s decision today is a win for the rule of law and a critical step in our fight to halt the weaponization of religious freedom,” said Laser. “Neither Father Belya nor anyone else should be forced to tolerate public defamation and the destruction of their reputation by a religious organization with no legal recourse. There must be equal justice under law.”
Father Belya’s legal team includes Americans United Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard, who argued the case before the 2nd Circuit in March 2022; AU Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee; former AU Steven Gey Legal Fellow Alex Bodaken; and Oleg Rivkin from the New York law firm Rivkin Law Group PLLC.
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
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