344 U.S. 94 (1952), 3, Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral

Docket Nº:No. 3
Citation:344 U.S. 94, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120
Party Name:Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral
Case Date:November 24, 1952
Court:United States Supreme Court

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344 U.S. 94 (1952)

73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120



Saint Nicholas Cathedral

No. 3

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 24, 1952

Argued February 1, 1952

Reargued October 14, 1952



In a suit brought in a New York state court by a corporation, holder of the legal title, to determine which prelate was entitled to the use and occupancy of a Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in New York City, the Court of Appeals of New York held for plaintiff, on the ground that Article 5-C of the Religious Corporations Law of New York had the purpose and effect of transferring the administrative control of the Russian Orthodox churches in North America from the Supreme Church Authority in Moscow to the authorities selected by a convention of the North American churches.

Held: ss thus construed and applied, the New York statute interferes with the free exercise of religion, contrary to the First Amendment, made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 95-121.

(a) Legislation which determines, in an hierarchical church, ecclesiastical administration or the appointment of the clergy, or transfers control of churches from one group to another, interferes with the free exercise of religion contrary to the Constitution. Pp. 106-116, 119.

(b) That the purpose of such legislation is to protect American churches from infiltration of atheistic or subversive influences does not require a different result, though legislative power to punish subversive action cannot be doubted, and neither his robe nor his pulpit would be a defense to a cleric attempting subversive actions. Pp. 108-110, 117-121.

(c) American Communications Association v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382, and Late Corporation of Latter-Day Saints v. United States, 136 U.S. 1, distinguished. Pp. 117-121.

(d) Freedom to select the clergy, where no improper methods of choice are proven, must now be said to have federal constitutional protection against state interference, as a part of the free exercise of religion. Pp. 115-116.

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(e) Even in those cases when property rights follow as incidents from decisions of the church custom or law on ecclesiastical issues, the church rule controls and must be accepted by the civil courts. Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall. 679. Pp. 115-116, 120-121.

302 N.Y. 1, 33, 96 N.E.2d 56, 74, reversed and remanded.

In an action brought in a state court by appellee, a New York corporation, to determine the right to the use and occupancy of a church in New York City, the trial court gave judgment in favor of the defendants, appellants here. 192 Misc. 327, 77 N.Y.S.2d 333. The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court affirmed. 276 A.D. 309, 94 N.Y.S.2d 453. The Court of Appeals reversed. 302 N.Y. 1, 33, 96 N.E.2d 56, 74. On appeal to this Court, reversed and remanded, p. 121.

REED, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

[73 S.Ct. 144] The right to the use and occupancy of a church in the City of New York is in dispute.

The right to such use is claimed by appellee, a corporation created in 1925 by an act of the Legislature of New York, Laws of New York 1925, c. 463, for the purpose of acquiring a cathedral for the Russian Orthodox Church in North America as a central place of worship and residence of the ruling archbishop

in accordance with the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of Eastern Confession as taught by the holy scriptures, holy tradition, seven ecumenical councils and holy fathers of that church.

The corporate right is sought to be enforced so that the head of the American churches, religiously affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, may occupy the

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Cathedral. At the present time, that head is the Metropolitan of All America and Canada, the Archbishop of New York, Leonty, who, like his predecessors, was elected to his ecclesiastical office by a sobor of the American churches.1

That claimed right of the corporation to use and occupancy for the archbishop chosen by the American churches is opposed by appellants, who are in possession. Benjamin Fedchenkoff bases his right on an appointment in 1934 by the Supreme Church Authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, to-wit, the Patriarch locum tenens of Moscow and all Russia and its Holy Synod, as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of North America and the Aleutian Islands. The other defendant-appellant is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, also acknowledging the spiritual and administrative control of the Moscow hierarchy.

Determination of the right to use and occupy Saint Nicholas depends upon whether the appointment of Benjamin

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by the Patriarch or the election of the Archbishop for North America by the convention of the American churches validly selects the ruling hierarch for the American churches. The Court of Appeals of New York, reversing the lower court, determined that the prelate appointed by the Moscow ecclesiastical authorities was not entitled to the Cathedral and directed the entry of a judgment that appellee corporation be reinvested with the possession and administration of the temporalities of St. Nicholas Cathedral. St. Nicholas Cathedral v. Kedroff, 302 N.Y. 1, 33, 96 N.E.2d 56, 74. This determination was made on the authority of Article 5-C of the Religious Corporations Law of New York, 302 N.Y. at 24 et seq., 96 N.E.2d at 68, against appellants' contention that this New York statute, as construed, violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Because of the constitutional questions thus generally involved, we noted probable jurisdiction, and, after argument [73 S.Ct. 145] and submission of the case last term, ordered reargument and requested counsel to include a discussion of whether the judgment might be sustained on state grounds. 343 U.S. 972. Both parties concluded that it could not, and the unequivocal remittitur of the New York Court of Appeals, 302 N.Y. 689, 98 N.E.2d 485, specifically stating the constitutionality of the statute as the necessary ground for decision, compels this view and precludes any doubt as to the propriety of our determination of the constitutional issue on the merits. Grayson v. Harris, 267 U.S. 352; Indiana ex rel. Anderson v. Brand, 303 U.S. 95. The case now has been reargued and submitted.

Article 5-C was added to the Religious Corporations Law of New York in 1945, and provided both for the incorporation and administration of Russian Orthodox churches. Clarifying amendments were added in 1948.

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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 at Detroit in 1924.2 This declared autonomy was made effective by a further legislative requirement that all the churches formerly administratively subject to the Moscow synod and patriarchate

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should for the future be governed by the ecclesiastical body and hierarchy of the American metropolitan district.3 The foregoing analysis follows the interpretation of this article by the [73 S.Ct. 146] Court of Appeals of New York, an interpretation binding upon us.4

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Article 5-C is challenged as invalid under the constitutional prohibition against interference with the exercise of religion.5 The appellants' contention, of course, is based on the theory that the principles of the First Amendment are made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth.6 See Stokes, Church and State in the United States (1950), vol. 1, c. VIII.

The Russian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous member of the Eastern Orthodox Greek Catholic Church. It sprang from the Church of Constantinople in the Tenth Century. The schism of 1054 A.D. split the Universal Church into those of the East and the West. Gradually self-government was assumed by the Russian Church until, in the Sixteenth Century, its autonomy was recognized, and a Patriarch of Moscow appeared. Fortescue, Orthodox Eastern Church, c. V. For the next one hundred

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years, the development of the church kept pace with the growth of power of the Czars, but it increasingly became a part of the civil government -- a state church. Throughout that period, it also remained an hierarchical church with a Patriarch at its head, governed by the conventions or sobors called by him. However, from the time of Peter the Great until 1917, no sobor was held. No patriarch ruled or was chosen. During that time, the church was governed [73 S.Ct. 147] by a Holy Synod, a group of ecclesiastics with a Chief Procurator representative of the government as a member.

Late in the Eighteenth Century, the Russian Church entered the missionary field in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. From there, churches spread slowly down the Pacific Coast, and later, with the Slavic immigration to our eastern cities, particularly to Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York. The character of the administrative unit changed with the years, as is indicated by the changes in its name. See note 2. In 1904, when a diocese of North America was created, its first archbishop, Tikhon, shortly thereafter established himself in his seat at Saint Nicholas Cathedral. His appointment came from the Holy Synod of Russia, as did those of his successors in order Platon and Evdokim. Under those appointments, the successive archbishops occupied the Cathedral and residence of Saint Nicholas under the administrative authority of the Holy Synod.

In 1917, Archbishop Evdokim returned to Russia permanently. Early that year, an All Russian Sobor was held, the first since Peter the Great. It occurred during the interlude of political freedom...

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