NY Times article on Moscow-Metropolia Supreme Court case

From the New York Times, November 25, 1952, page 31:


State Law to End Communist Sway in Orthodox Cathedral Here Is Upset by Ruling


8-to-1 Decision Holds Action Violated 14th Amendment — Jackson Lone Dissenter


WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 — The Supreme Court of the United States ruled today that a New York law, seeking to eliminate Communist influence in Russian Orthodox churches chartered in the state, fell into the realm of religious control barred by the Constitution of the United States.

Under the state law, the Rev. Benjamin Fedchenkoff, Archbishop of the church in North America by appointment of the Patriarch of Moscow, was removed from his pulpit at St. Nicholas Cathedral, 15 East Ninety-seventh Street, New York.

The Court of Appeals, highest tribunal of the state, upheld the validity of the state law under which the ouster was undertaken but the Supreme Court, reversing this finding in an eight-to-one decision, held that such a law violates the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion in this country.

The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Stanley F. Reed, said a state Legislature “cannot validate action which the Constitution prohibits.”

Argument by Jackson

Registering his lone dissent, Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson held that the argument that the state law violated the Fourteenth Amendment safeguards of religious freedom was “so insubstantial that I would dismiss the appeal.”

“To me, whatever the canon law is found to be and whoever is the rightful head of the Moscow Patriarchate,” he wrote, “I do not think that New York law must yield to the authority of a foreign and unfriendly state masquerading as a spiritual institution.”

A bitter factional fight has raged at St. Nicholas Cathedral since 1917, when the Russian revolution brought changes in the central church. A faction, headed by the late Archbishop John S. Kedrovsky, got control of the cathedral in 1926 and kept it up to 1945, when a legal battle was begun over it.

Joined with Archbishop Fedchenkoff as an appellant in the present case has been the Rev. John Kedroff, a son of the late Archbishop. The basic fight has been between those supporting the mother church at Moscow and adherents of the Russian Church in America, recognized under New York law as having the authority over Russian Orthodox churches within the state. This latter group was set up in 1924.

It was on the basis of this law that officials of the cathedral sued to remove Archbishop Fedchenkoff, whose Moscow-bestowed title was Archbishop of the Archdiocese of North America and the Aleutian Islands.

The prevailing court opinion held that the New York law undertook to transfer control of the New York church from the central governing hierarchy and thereby “violates the Fourteenth Amendment by prohibiting in this country the free exercise of religion.”

Majority Opinion Stated

The Reed opinion took cognizance of the fact that the Court of Appeals felt that, since the Russian Government exercised control over the central church authorities, the state legislature had been reasonably justified “in enacting a law to free the American group from infiltration of such atheistic or subversive influences.”

“This legislation, in view of the Court of Appeals,” wrote Justice Reed, “gave the use of the church to the Russian church in America on the theory that this carry out the purposes of the religious trust. Thus, dangers of political use of church pulpits would be minimized.

“Legislative power to punish subversive action cannot be doubted. If such action should be actually attempted by a cleric neither his robe nor his pulpit would be a defense. But in this case, no probation of law arises. There is no 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.”

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter stated that St. Nicholas Cathedral was “not just a piece of real estate . . . no more than is St. Patrick’s Cathedral or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.” The cathedral, he maintained, was “an archiepiscopal see of one of the great religious organizations” in stating that the essence of the controversy was “the power to exercise religious authority.”

Finding Called “Sound”

Philip Adler, attorney for St. Nicholas Cathedral [actually, the attorney for the Moscow group], said last night that the position of the Supreme Court was “sound,” regardless of one’s attitude toward Soviet Russia. He emphasized that while he was uncompromisingly opposed to communism, “the church must be preserved.”

Ralph Montgomery Arkush, the opposing counsel [for the Metropolia group], said that he preferred not to comment until he had an opportunity to study the court’s opinion. He added, however, that there “still may be a remedy at common law.”

Editor’s note: That last line by Arkush, the Metropolia’s attorney, is important: that there “still may be a remedy at common law.” The Supreme Court struck down an act of the New York legislature, but the Metropolia didn’t give up. They went back to court, this time arguing that even if the legislature couldn’t decide the property dispute in the Metropolia’s favor, the New York courts could.

New York’s highest court agreed. It found, as a factual matter, that the Patriarch of Moscow was dominated by the secular authority of the USSR, and because of this, his appointed Archbishop could not, under New York common law, take possession of the Cathedral. It was a blatantly anti-Communist rationale, and the case made it all the way back to the Supreme Court in 1960, under the title Kreshik v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral. In an opinion far shorter than the 1952 case, the Supreme Court struck down the New York ruling, reasoning that it doesn’t matter whether the state violates religious freedom through the legislature or the judiciary — either way, you’ve got the state violating religious freedom, and that’s unconstitutional. “[O]ur ruling in Kedroff is controlling here,” reads the opinion, and once again Moscow won.

St. Nicholas Cathedral remains the property of the Moscow Patriarchate to this day. Any future dispute over the ownership of the Cathedral was put to rest by Moscow’s 1970 Tomos of Autocephaly, granted to the OCA, which stipulated that the Cathedral (among other properties) is “excluded from autocephaly on the territory of North America.” Today, the Cathedral is the official representation church of the Moscow Patriarchate in America.