Court won't revisit ruling allowing priest to sue church for defamation

The Thurgood Marshall courthouse is pictured in New York
The Thurgood Marshall courthouse is pictured in New York, New York, U.S. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
  • Split court says lawsuit doesn't implicate religious matters
  • Dissenting judge says ruling will destroy church autonomy

(Reuters) - A sharply divided U.S. appeals court on Wednesday declined to reconsider a ruling that said a former Russian Orthodox priest could sue the church for defamation without interfering with its internal governance.

The Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 6-6 vote denied en banc review of a three-judge panel's September ruling, with the dissenting judges claiming the decision would eviscerate church autonomy protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The panel had rejected the Russian Orthodox Church's bid to dismiss a lawsuit by Alexander Belya, who claims church officials' false accusations of fraud and forgery led to him losing an appointment to become the bishop of Miami.

Lawyers for Belya and the defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The panel, affirming a New York federal judge, had held that because the lawsuit focuses on "neutral principles" and not matters of faith or religious doctrine, the church was not shielded from Belya's claims.

But in a dissenting opinion on Wednesday, Circuit Judge Michael Park said church autonomy applies not only to religious matters but issues involving internal governance.

"It is difficult to see how a court could assess [Belya's] claim without considering the reasons for the church’s decisions, including whether Defendants correctly determined that Belya was never elected Bishop of Miami and whether they acted in good faith," Park wrote.

Park, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, was joined by four other Republican appointees and Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

In an opinion backing the denial of en banc review, Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier said Park had improperly implied that Belya purposely styled his lawsuit as a defamation case to get around the doctrine of church autonomy.

"At this stage, Belya’s claim is a genuine defamation claim that, as the dissent’s refusal to take it at face value suggests, would not implicate church autonomy," wrote Lohier, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

Lohier was joined by fellow Obama appointee Circuit Judge Denny Chin and four appointees of President Joe Biden.

The case is Belya v. Kapral, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-1498.

For Belya: Bradley Girard of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

For the defendants: Diana Thomson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at