426 U.S. 696 (1976), 75-292, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese For United States of America And Canada v. Milivojevich

Docket Nº:No. 75-292.
Citation:426 U.S. 696, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 49 L.Ed.2d 151
Party Name:The SERBIAN EASTERN ORTHODOX DIOCESE FOR the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND CANADA et al., Petitioners, v. Dionisije MILIVOJEVICH et al.
Case Date:June 21, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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426 U.S. 696 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 2372, 49 L.Ed.2d 151

The SERBIAN EASTERN ORTHODOX DIOCESE FOR the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND CANADA et al., Petitioners,

v.

Dionisije MILIVOJEVICH et al.

No. 75-292.

United States Supreme Court.

June 21, 1976

Argued March 22, 1976.

Rehearing Denied Oct. 4, 1976.

[96 S.Ct. 2374] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

During the course of a protracted dispute over the control of the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States and Canada, the Holy Assembly of Bishops and the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church (Mother Church) suspended and ultimately removed and defrocked the Bishop, respondent Dionisije, and appointed petitioner Firmilian as Administrator of the Diocese, which the Mother Church then reorganized into three Dioceses. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a hierarchical church, and the sole power to appoint and remove its Bishops rests in the Holy Assembly and Holy Synod. Dionisije filed suit in the Illinois courts seeking to enjoin petitioners from interfering with Diocesan assets of respondent not-for-profit Illinois corporations and to have himself declared the true Diocesan Bishop. After a lengthy trial, the trial court resolved most of the disputed issues in favor of petitioners. The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that Dionisije's removal and defrockment had to be set aside as "arbitrary" because the proceedings against him had not in its view been conducted in accordance with the Church's constitution and penal code, and that the Diocesan reorganization was invalid because it exceeded the scope of the Mother Church's authority to effectuate such changes without Diocesan approval. Held :

1. The holding of the Illinois Supreme Court constituted improper judicial interference with the decisions of a hierarchical church and in thus interposing its judgment into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance and polity, the court contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 2380-2387.

(a) "(W)henever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of (the) church judicatories to which the [96 S.Ct. 2375] matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding . . .." Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall. 679, 727, 20 L.Ed. 666. Pp. 2380-2381.

(b) Under the guise of "minimal" review of the Mother

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Church's decisions that the Illinois Supreme Court deemed "aitrary" that court has unconstitutionally undertaken the adjudication of quintessentially religious controversies whose resolution the First Amendment commits exclusively to the highest ecclesiastical tribunals of this hierarchical church. Pp. 2382-2385.

2. Though it did not rely on the "fraud, collusion, or arbitrariness" exception to the rule requiring recognition by civil courts of decisions by hierarchical tribunals, but rather on purported "neutral principles" for resolving property disputes in reaching its conclusion that the Mother Church's reorganization of the American-Canadian Diocese into three Dioceses was invalid, that conclusion also contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The reorganization of the Diocese involves solely a matter of internal church government, an issue at the core of ecclesiastical affairs. Religious freedom encompasses the "power (of religious bodies) to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 73 S.Ct. 143, 154, 97 L.Ed. 120. Pp. 2385-2387.

60 Ill.2d 477, 328 N.E.2d 268, reversed.

COUNSEL

Albert E. Jenner, Jr., Chicago, Ill., for petitioners.

Leo J. Sullivan, III, Waukegan, Ill., for respondents.

OPINION

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1963, the Holy Assembly of Bishops and the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church (Mother Church)

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suspended and ultimately removed respondent Dionisije Milivojevich (Dionisije) as Bishop of the American-Canadian Diocese of that Church, and appointed petitioner Bishop Firmilian Ocokoljich (Firmilian) as Administrator of the Diocese, which the Mother Church then reorganized into three Dioceses. In 1964 the Holy Assembly and Holy Synod defrocked Dionisije as a Bishop and cleric of the Mother Church. In this civil action brought by Dionisije and the other respondents in Illinois Circuit Court, the Supreme Court of Illinois held that the proceedings of the Mother Church respecting Dionisije were procedurally and substantively defective under the internal regulations of the Mother Church and were therefore arbitrary and invalid. The State Supreme Court also invalidated the Diocesan reorganization into three Dioceses. 60 Ill.2d 477, 328 N.E.2d 268 (1975). 1 We granted certiorari to determine whether the actions of the Illinois Supreme Court constituted improper judicial interference with decisions of the highest authorities of a hierarchical church in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. 423 U.S. 911, 96 S.Ct. 770, 46 L.Ed.2d 634 (1975). We hold that the inquiries made by the Illinois Supreme Court into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance and polity and the court's actions pursuant thereto contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments. We therefore reverse.

I

The basic dispute is over control of the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada (American-Canadian Diocese), its property and assets. Petitioners are Bishops Firmilian, Gregory Udicki, and Sava Vukovich, and the Serbian Eastern

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Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada (the religious body in this country). Respondents are Bishop Dionisije, the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of St. Sava, and the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada, an [96 S.Ct. 2376] Illinois religious corporation. A proper perspective on the relationship of these parties and the nature of this dispute requires some background discussion.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, one of the 14 autocephalous, hierarchical churches which came into existence following the schism of the universal Christian church in 1054, is an episcopal church whose seat is the Patriarchate in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Its highest legislative, judicial, ecclesiastical, and administrative authority resides in the Holy Assembly of Bishops, a body composed of all Diocesan Bishops presided over by a Bishop designated by the Assembly to be Patriarch. The Church's highest executive body, the Holy Synod of Bishops, is composed of the Patriarch and four Diocesan Bishops selected by the Holy Assembly. The Holy Synod and the Holy Assembly have the exclusive power to remove, suspend, defrock, or appoint Diocesan Bishops. The Mother Church is governed according to the Holy Scriptures, Holy Tradition, Rules of the Ecumenical Councils, the Holy Apostles, the Holy Faiths of the Church, the Mother Church Constitution adopted in 1931, and a "penal code" adopted in 1961. These sources of law are sometimes ambiguous and seemingly inconsistent. Pertinent provisions of the Mother Church Constitution provide that the Church's "main administrative division is composed of dioceses, both in regard to church hierarchical and church administrative aspect," Art. 12, and that "(d)ecisions of establishing, naming, liquidating, reorganizing, and the seat of the dioceses, and establishing or eliminating of position of vicar bishops,

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is decided upon by the (Holy Assembly), in agreement with the Patriarchal Council," Art. 16.

During the late 19th century, migrants to North America of Serbian descent formed autonomous religious congregations throughout this country and Canada. These congregations were then under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, but that Church was unable to care for their needs and the congregations sought permission to bring themselves under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In 1913 and 1916, Serbian priests and laymen organized a Serbian Orthodox Church in North America. The 32 Serbian Orthodox congregations were divided into 4 presbyteries, each presided over by a Bishop's Aide, and constitutions were adopted. In 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church commissioned a Serbian priest, Father Mardary, to organize an independent Serbian Diocese in America. Four years later, as a result of Father Mardary's efforts, the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Mother Church created the Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada and designated a Serbian Bishop to complete the formal organization of a Diocese. From that time until 1963, each bishop who governed the American-Canadian Diocese was a Yugoslav citizen appointed by the Mother Church without consultation with Diocesan officials.

In 1927, Father Mardary called a Church National Assembly embracing all of the known Serbian Orthodox congregations in the United States and Canada. The Assembly drafted and adopted the constitution of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada, and submitted the constitution to the Mother Church for approval. The Holy Assembly made changes to provide for appointment of the Diocesan Bishop by the Holy Assembly and to require Holy Assembly

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approval for any amendments to the constitution, and with these changes approved the constitution. The American-Canadian Diocese was the only diocese of the Mother Church with its own constitution.

Article 1 of the constitution provides that the American-Canadian Diocese "is considered ecclesiastically-judicially as an organic part of the Serbian Patriarchate in the...

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