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Religion and the Law

No Immediate Appeal of Denial of Church Autonomy Defense in Intra-Church Libel Case

A dispute about alleged forgery of letters related to the appointment of a Bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia leads to an important appellate procedure case in the Second Circuit.


From Belya v. Kapral, decided today by the Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Denny Chin, joined by Judges Raymond Lohier and Beth Robinson:

In this case, plaintiff-appellee Alexander Belya sued defendants-appellants—individuals and entities affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia ("ROCOR" …)—for defamation, contending that they defamed him when they publicly accused him of forging a series of letters relating to his appointment as the Bishop of Miami.

Defendants moved to dismiss based on the "church autonomy doctrine," arguing that Belya's suit would impermissibly involve the courts in matters of faith, doctrine, and internal church government. The district court denied the motion. Defendants then filed a motion for reconsideration and a motion to limit discovery to the issue of whether the church autonomy doctrine applied or otherwise to stay proceedings. The district court denied those motions as well. Defendants appeal from the three interlocutory rulings.

Appellate jurisdiction typically requires either a final judgment, 28 U.S.C. § 1291, or a certified interlocutory appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). The district court denied Defendants' motions without entering a final judgment (the case is pending in the district court, although proceedings have been stayed) and declined to certify an interlocutory appeal. Defendants argue that we have appellate jurisdiction based on the collateral order doctrine, which allows for appellate review of an interlocutory order if the ruling (1) is conclusive; (2) resolves important questions separate from the merits; and (3) is effectively unreviewable on appeal after a final judgment is entered.

We hold that the collateral order doctrine does not apply in the circumstances here. We therefore dismiss this appeal….

Belya served as a ROCOR priest in the Czech Republic and Slovakia before moving to the United States eleven years ago. He served in the United States as a ROCOR priest until September 14, 2019, when he was suspended pending an investigation into the matters discussed below.

As set forth in the Complaint, Belya was elected by the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR …—the executive arm of ROCOR—to the position of Bishop of Miami. The election was held from December 6 through 10, 2018.

Defendant-appellant Hilarion Kapral, also known as Metropolitan Hilarion, was the "ruling bishop and First Hierarch" of ROCOR. Metropolitan Hilarion apparently wrote a letter dated December 10, 2018 … to Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, which stated:

I am happy to share the joyful news—by a majority vote two Vicar Bishops have been elected to the diocese entrusted to me. They are most worthy candidates…. [Candidates include] Archimandrite Alexander (Belya) … elected as the Bishop of Miami.

According to the Complaint, the December 10 letter was signed by Metropolitan Hilarion and stamped with his official seal.

That same day, Metropolitan Hilarion also sent a letter to Belya, explaining that there were certain corrections that Belya needed to make to his practices. The Synod designated Archbishop Gavriil to report on Belya's implementation of these corrections. In early January 2019 …, Archbishop Gavriil wrote to Metropolitan Hilarion, stating that:

I do not see any obstacles to approv[ing] the date of consecration of [Belya], elected as the Vicar Bishop for Miami, of which I hereby inform Your Eminence.

Soon thereafter, on January 11, 2019 …, Metropolitan Hilarion wrote again to Patriarch Kirill, stating as follows:

I hereby ask Your Holiness to approve [Belya's] candidacy at the next meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Like the December 10 letter, the January 11 letter apparently was signed by Metropolitan Hilarion and stamped with his official seal.

On July 16, 2019, Belya had an audience with Patriarch Kirill. Six weeks later, on August 30, 2019, the Moscow Patriarchate's official website posted the decision to approve Belya's appointment. On that same day, Metropolitan Hilarion congratulated Belya via phone call….

Four days later, on September 3, 2019, several ROCOR clergy members wrote a letter about Belya to the Synod and Metropolitan Hilarion …. The September 3 letter was disseminated to all thirteen members of the Synod and forwarded to other members of ROCOR, including parishes, churches, monasteries, and other institutions, as well as online media outlets. It raised concerns about purportedly irregular aspects of Belya's "confirmation by [ROCOR] … as Bishop of Miami." The alleged irregularities related to the December 10, early January, and January 11 letters.

First, the September 3 letter asserted that even though the December 10 and January 11 letters appeared to have been signed and stamped with his seal, Metropolitan Hilarion "knew nothing about the written [letters] directed to Moscow." The September 3 letter further alleged that "as stated by His Eminence [Metropolitan Hilarion]," the letters "were drawn up in an irregular manner." It mentioned the absence of an "appropriate citation" from the Synod's decision and the lack of a biography of those elected. Second, the September 3 letter stated that the early January letter "raises doubts as well," specifically because the early January letter was not printed on Archbishop Gavriil's "official letterhead."

The September 3 letter requested that, considering the allegations, Belya be suspended from clerical functions and barred from election candidacy. That same day, Metropolitan Hilarion issued an order to Belya suspending him from his position and responsibilities. Soon after, on September 16, 2019, Metropolitan Hilarion issued a public decree suspending Belya pending a formal investigation recommended in the September 3 letter. The decree also prohibited members of Belya's parish from communicating with him.

On September 16, 2019, a clergy member posted about the dispute over Belya's confirmation on the social media site of his church. The post read:

Alleged ROCOR episcopal nominee Fr. Alexander Belya, already confirmed by the ROC Synod, had not been elected by the ROCOR Synod and a letter informing about [sic] his nomination sent to Moscow was a forgery. The priest in question was suspended, internal investigation was started.

Various religious news outlets and publications also publicly circulated news of the controversy. Orthodox News, for example, reposted the statement. Helleniscope, another Orthodox Christian publication, wrote:

This past summer, [Belya] also forged a letter from His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral), the First Hierarch of ROCOR, attempting to get himself confirmed by the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate as a bishop-elect for ROCOR in America.

Following the controversy, Belya left ROCOR and now serves as a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church….

Belya sued for defamation; defendants argued that the church autonomy doctrine barred the lawsuit; the District Court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss (among other motions); and the question is whether such a denial is one of the rare sorts of orders that are subject to an "interlocutory appeal"—an appeal while the case is still pending, rather than after final judgment. No interlocutory appeal, holds the Second Circuit:

The church autonomy doctrine provides that religious associations have "independence in matters of faith and doctrine and in closely linked matters of internal government." To allow anyone "aggrieved by [a religious association's] decisions" to "appeal to the secular courts and have [those decisions] reversed" subverts the rights of religious associations to retain independence in matters of faith, doctrine, and internal government.

But secular components of a dispute involving religious parties are not insulated from judicial review; a court may use the "neutral principles of law" approach. So long as the court relies "exclusively on objective, well-established [legal] concepts," it may permissibly resolve a dispute even when parties are religious bodies. This is a common-sense approach: When a case can be resolved by applying well-established law to secular components of a dispute, such resolution by a secular court presents no infringement upon a religious association's independence. Thus, simply having a religious association on one side of the "v" does not automatically mean a district court must dismiss the case or limit discovery. {Most cases applying the "neutral principles of law" approach have resolved disputes over church property. The approach, however, goes beyond solely church property disputes.} …

And the court concluded that church autonomy claims aren't the unusual sorts of defenses that (like qualified immunity) give defendants a categorical immunity from even having to face the costs of continued litigation:

The church autonomy doctrine provides religious associations neither an immunity from discovery nor an immunity from trial on secular matters. Instead, as the Seventh Circuit also recognized, the First Amendment serves more as "an ordinary defense to liability."

Other precedent also emphasizes that the church autonomy doctrine is a defense and not a jurisdictional bar from suit…. Immediate appellate review is not the proper avenue for parties seeking to assert a church autonomy defense. {[In some cases, a proper avenue] may be a writ of mandamus. We have previously granted such a writ to a religious association that did not meet the requirements for a collateral appeal. See In re Roman Cath. Diocese of Albany, 745 F.3d 30, 35 (2d Cir. 2014) (per curiam). There, the religious association argued it would suffer harm if discovery proceeded even though personal jurisdiction remained unclear.}

Defendants argue that the parallels between qualified immunity and church autonomy mean church autonomy is also an "immunity from discovery and trial" and thus falls within the collateral order doctrine. To that end, Defendants and amici offer a handful of cases comparing the church autonomy defense with qualified immunity in § 1983 cases. But their analogy falls flat on a crucial point. It is true that a district court's order denying qualified immunity is an immediately appealable collateral order—but only "to the extent that it turns on an issue of law." The presence of factual questions means we lack appellate jurisdiction to review a denial of qualified immunity.

The orders appealed here involve the existence of many genuinely disputed fact questions. The Supreme Court has explained that:

[A]n interlocutory appeal concerning [triable issues of fact] in a sense makes unwise use of appellate courts' time, by forcing them to decide in the context of a less developed record, an issue very similar to one they may well decide anyway later, on a record that will permit a better decision.

The defamation claims asserted here hinge on crucial questions of fact, and, as the district court recognized, there are numerous "disputes as to whether the factual situation presented fits into the [church autonomy doctrine]." Decidedly non-ecclesiastical questions of fact remain. For example, did the purported signatories actually sign the letters? Were the December 10 and January 11 letters stamped with Metropolitan Hilarion's seal? If so, who stamped them? Was the early January letter on Archbishop Gavriil's letterhead? More broadly, did Belya forge the letters at issue? These are outstanding secular fact questions that are not properly before us—and would not require a fact-finder to delve into matters of faith and doctrine.

Accordingly, we hold that the district court's orders are not reviewable on interlocutory appeal under the collateral order doctrine….