Neutral Principles of Law in a Bulgarian parish dispute

Today I’ll be discussing Aglikin v. Kovacheff, a 1987 Illinois appellate court case involving a dispute over control of St. Sophia Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Chicago. The key question, in this case, concerns the extent of the diocesan bishop’s authority over the local parish. The bishop had dismissed certain members of the parish board of trustees — did he have the authority to do this? The Illinois court (both the majority and the dissent) applied neutral principles analysis to the case. (To read the full opinions, click here.)

St. Sophia was a part of the Bulgarian patriarchal jurisdiction. It was incorporated in 1946, and its articles of incorporation indicate that it is “administratively and canonically” an “inseparable organic part of the Bulgarian Eparchy in America and under its jurisdiction.”

The bylaws of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church grant diocesan control over local parish boards — according to the bylaws, if parish board members fail in their duties, the diocese can dismiss the board and appoint a commission to run the church. These Bulgarian Church bylaws also stipulate that the “organization and administration” of the American diocese will be determined by a special synodical order sanctioned by the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — but, the court says, “[n]o such order appears in the record before us.” The lack of such an order was a major part of the dismissed trustees’ argument against the bishop’s authority.

The Bulgarian diocese in America was founded in 1969, and its bylaws provide for “absolute control” of church property by the local church, administered by the parish board. The diocesan bishop must bless the election of board members, but the bylaws are silent about any diocesan control over the board once it is in office. Unlike in the patriarchal bylaws, there’s no indication in the diocesan bylaws that the bishop can dismiss board members.

The trial court had applied strict deference in this case, and found that since the local parish is subordinate to the diocesan bishop, it is bound by his decisions. On this basis, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the diocesan commission. (Summary judgment means that the case didn’t go to trial — the trial judge decided that there was no “genuine issue of material fact,” and that one side was entitled to “judgment as a matter of law.”) The appellate court disagreed, holding that neutral principles, rather than strict deference, should be employed. Why? “Our preference for a neutral principles approach, rather than the strict deference approach, is based on our conclusion that court entanglement in ecclesiastical doctrine is less likely to occur in the application of neutral principles.”

Deference, said the court, presumes that a local church has totally submitted to a hierarchical authority — but it’s not always that simple. In fact, strict deference may discourage local parishes from affiliating with a diocese, since they would be subject to the whims of the diocesan authority. Citing Justice Rehnquist’s dissent in Serbian Diocese v. Milivojevich, the court observed that strict deference also runs the risk of establishing religion.

Neutral principles analysis isn’t always possible. According to the appellate court, it works in disputes over ownership or control. In this case, both sides agreed that the dispute wasn’t about doctrine or polity — it was about control of property.

Applying neutral principles, the appellate court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact in this case: namely, the extent of diocesan authority. St. Sophia’s articles of incorporation place it under the Bulgarian Church, but they don’t specify the extent of that subordination. Nothing in the articles says that the bishop controls parish property or can dismiss a parish board. Likewise, the diocesan bylaws don’t help. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church bylaws do give the bishop that kind of authority… but that brings us back to that special synod order I mentioned above. There was no such order, at least not that anyone could produce, which led the court to question whether the Bulgarian patriarchal bylaws applied to its American diocese.

This isn’t to say that the patriarchal bylaws don’t apply to America, but it’s enough for the court to find a “genuine issue of material fact” sufficient to send the case to trial. Because of this, and because the trial court erroneously (so says the appellate court) employed strict deference rather than neutral principles, the case was sent back to the lower court. The appellate court reasoned,

We note that the trial court impermissibly extended its jurisdiction by declaring that St. Sophia will be “governed by the dictates” of the bishop. While civil courts have subject-matter jurisdiction over church property disputes, they may decide only issues relating to the parties’ civil and property rights. […] By according the bishop plenary authority over St. Sophia’s affairs, the trial court failed to restrict itself to deciding who controls St. Sophia’s property and assets. Civil courts lack the power to confer ecclesiastical authority.

[Emphasis mine.]

In dissent, Justice Jiganti actually agreed that neutral principles analysis was appropriate in this case, but he reached a very different conclusion. Neutral principles is the right approach, he says, but here there simply is no geninue issue of material fact. “The only issue in this case is whether St. Sophia submitted to the jurisdiction of the regional diocese and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Although the majority finds a question of fact with regard to this issue, I believe that it is foreclosed by the statement in St. Sophia’s Articles of Incorporation that St. Sophia was ‘administratively and canonically’ under the jurisdiction of the ‘Bulgarian Eparchy in America.'”

These articles of incorporation, says Justice Jiganti, should be analyzed just like a contract — the plain meaning of the words is paramount. And those words plainly subject the local parish to the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Church. Yes, the parish has some level of choice in certain respects, but it’s still subordinate to the American diocese and the Church of Bulgaria. The fact that the diocesan bishop can replace the parish board doesn’t take control over church property away from the parish — it just changes the identity of the parish leaders. “St. Sophia will still operate as St. Sophia, but under a new leadership.”

Both sides in this case make some good points, but my initial reaction is that the majority’s decision hinges on a technicality. No, there wasn’t that special synod order, but how important is that? Does the absence of a special order mean that the American diocese isn’t subject to the bylaws of the Mother Church? It would be nice to get some more information about just what the special order is, but we aren’t given any details. We’re just told by the majority that there wasn’t such an order. I didn’t discuss it above, but the majority also found some significance in an affidavit by the former president of the parish board, claiming that St. Sophia retained “administrative independence” when it joined the American diocese. The dissent points out that, since we have reasonably clear official documents like the articles of incorporation, that affidavit doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

In defense of the majority, on the other hand, I would point out that they didn’t say that the former parish board wins the case — they just said that there’s enough of a factual dispute that the case should go to trial. They may be right. At the very least, I would think that a trial would reveal the content and significance of those “special orders.”

The most interesting thing about this case is the fact that justices applying neutral principles can still reach very different outcomes in the same case.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.