Moscow v. the Metropolia in the Supreme Court, Part 1: Justice Reed’s majority opinion

It’s been forever since I wrote an article here at OH.org. I’ve been incredibly busy, with my family, my local parish, and law school classes taking up all of my time. I’m in summer classes, as well, so there won’t be much reprieve over the next couple of months. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to mix law school and American Orthodox history. This summer, I am writing, for credit, a paper on Orthodoxy in the American courts. As best I can tell, there has been very little published on the subject, although awhile back one reader (a recent law school graduate) sent me a paper he had written on the very subject. I hope to publish my own paper at some point.

Right now, I’m up to my neck in case law, reading judges’ opinions from throughout the 20th century. There are two major US Supreme Court cases dealing with Orthodoxy — Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral (1952) and Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976). Today, I’m going to share some thoughts on Kedroff. For the full text of the Supreme Court opinions, click here.

Kedroff deals with a dispute between the Russian Metropolia (today’s OCA) on the one hand, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s North American Archdiocese on the other. At issue is which group — the Metropolia or Moscow — should have possession of St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York City.

The basic history is as follows. Until 1917, all Russian Orthodox churches in America were under the authority of the Orthodox Church of Russia, which was governed by a Holy Synod. In 1917… well, a lot happened in 1917. First there was the February Revolution, which dethroned the Tsar. An All-Russian Sobor was then held, and St. Tikhon (formerly of America) was elected Patriarch of Moscow — the first such election since Peter the Great abolished the office of Patriarch. Just as this happened, the Bolsheviks swept into power and began to persecute the Orthodox Church.

On November 20, 1920, Patriarch Tikhon issued a document granting to the North American Archdiocese what Justice Reed (writing for the majority) refers to as “a large measure of autonomy, when the Russian ruling authority was unable to function, subject to ‘confirmation later to the Central Church Authority when it is reestablished.'” In 1924, the North American Archdiocese held an All-American Sobor in Detroit. American Orthodox historians typically view the 1924 Detroit Sobor to be the moment when the North American Archdiocese was transformed into the autonomous Russian Metropolia. Justice Reed writes, “This was followed by [...] a spate of litigation concerning control of the various churches and occupancy of ecclesiastical positions [...]”

Patriarch Tikhon died in 1925. In 1933, Metropolitan Sergius, locum tenens of the patriarchal throne, appointed Archbishop Benjamin Fedchenkov to head a new Russian Archdiocese in North America. A decade later, Sergius was elected Patriarch, but he died soon thereafter. Justice Reed: “After Sergius’ death a new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexi, was chosen Patriarch in 1945 at Moscow at a sobor recognized by all parties to this litigation as a true sobor held in accordance with church canons.” I hadn’t realized this — that the Metropolia recognized the election of Patriarch Alexy I as canonical.

Representatives from the American Metropolia were supposed to participate in that 1945 Sobor that elected Alexy, but they were prevented. I don’t know what the story is there (Justice Reed doesn’t know, and he’s who I’m relying on right now), but I seem to recall reading something about that in an OCA history book somewhere… I’ll have to look. Anyway, when the Metropolia reps finally made it to Moscow, they presented to the Patriarch and Holy Synod a report on the Metropolia and a request for formal autonomy. A few days later (February 14 or 16, 1945), Moscow responded with an ukase, stipulating that, for Moscow and the Metropolia to reunite, the Metropolia must:

  1. Promptly hold an All-American Sobor,
  2. Express the decision of the American dioceses to reunite with Moscow,
  3. Declare the agreement of the Metropolia to abstain “from political activities against the USSR,” and
  4. Elect a Metropolitan subject to confirmation by Moscow.

The ukase stopped short of promising autonomy, instead suggesting only that the American Metropolitan “may be given some extended powers.”

At an All-American Sobor in Cleveland in 1946, the Metropolia rejected Moscow’s offer. Thus began the events which led to this 1952 Supreme Court case. The Metropolia was headquartered in New York, and in New York state, religious corporations are incorporated by acts of the state legislature. In fact, at about this time, the other major American Orthodox jurisdictions (e.g. the Greeks and Antiochians) incorporated in New York. So too was the Metropolia incorporated by a legislative act. Justice Reed explains the act thusly:

The purpose of the article was to bring all the New York churches, formerly subject to the administrative jurisdiction of the Most Sacred Governing Synod in Moscow or the Patriarch of Moscow, into an administratively autonomous metropolitan district. That district was North American in area, created pursuant to resolutions adopted at a sobor held in Detroit in 1924. This declared autonomy was made effective by a further legislative requirement that all the churches formerly subject to the Moscow synod and patriarchate should for the future be governed by the ecclesiastical body and hierarchy of the American metropolitan district.

The majority of the Supreme Court found this act to be unconstitutional. Justice Reed: “We conclude that Article 5-C undertook by its terms to transfer the control of the New York churches of the Russian Orthodox religion from the central governing hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch of Moscow and the Holy Synod, to the governing authorities of the Russian Church in America, a church organization limited to the diocese of North America and the Aleutian Islands. [...] Such a law violates the Fourteenth Amendment. It prohibits in this country the free exercise of religion.” In other words, the New York legislature can’t do that! They can’t modify or cut off Moscow’s jurisdiction — and, as Justice Reed explains, “Nothing indicates that [Moscow] relinquished that authority [over Russian Church in America] or recognized the autonomy of the American church.”

Furthermore, the legislative act requires the New York churches to conform to Orthodox doctrine, etc. This sounds fine and good, but, says Justice Reed, “their conformity is by legislative fiat and subject to legislative will. Should the state assert power to change the statute requiring conformity to ancient faith and doctrine to one establishing a different doctrine, the invalidity would be unmistakable.”

Of course, all this legislation was taking place at a tension-filled time in American history. This was the McCarthy Era, the Red Scare, when even a hint of Communist sympathies could ruin your life. Justice Reed agrees with the need to curtail Communist sentiments, saying, “Legislative power to punish subversive action cannot be doubted. If such action should actually be attempted by a cleric, neither his robe nor his pulpit would be a defense. But in this case no problem of punishment for violation of the law arises. There is no charge of subversive or hostile action by any ecclesiastic. Here there is a transfer by statute of control over churches. This violates our rule of separation between church and state.”

The rationale of the majority is pretty straightforward: this is an internal church dispute in which the government may not interfere. In the view of the majority, Moscow never surrendered its authority in America. Of Article 5-C, Justice Reed concludes, “By fiat it displaces one church administrator with another. It passes 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 a forbidden area of religious freedom contrary to the principles of the First Amendment. [...] Article 5-C directly prohibits the free exercise of an ecclesiastical right, the Church’s choice of its hierarchy.”

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that in 1952, the Supreme Court of the United States decided a case against a local American church and in favor of a church widely regarded as under Soviet influence? But, in the majority’s eyes, they had no choice. Next time, we’ll look at Justice Frankfurther’s concurring opinion, which takes a somewhat different approach but reaches the same ultimate conclusion (that is, that Moscow wins and the Metropolia loses). After that, we’ll discuss Justice Jackson’s dissenting opinion.

I should say (and probably should have said at the beginning) that this analysis of mine is a work in progress. I’m definitely not an expert on this stuff, and I’m learning as I go. It’s entirely possible that I’ve butchered the analysis, and I’ll be revisiting everything many times before I complete my paper. I would appreciate any feedback my readers might have, and I’d especially love to hear what the lawyers out there think of the Kedroff case. These articles I’m writing are really just my own notes and impressions, but I thought readers might find the case interesting. I hope you’ll all forgive me for the inadequacies of my initial analysis. Consider yourself forewarned.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.