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

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

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

Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral

No. 3

Argued February 1, 1952

Reargued October 14, 1952

Decided November 24, 1952

344 U.S. 94



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. 344 U. S. 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. 344 U. S. 106-116, 344 U. S. 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. 344 U. S. 108-110, 344 U. S. 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. 344 U. S. 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. 344 U. S. 115-116.

Page 344 U. S. 95

(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. 344 U. S. 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 App.Div. 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. 344 U. S. 121.

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

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

Page 344 U. S. 96

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. [Footnote 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

Page 344 U. S. 97

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 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.

Page 344 U. S. 98

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. [Footnote 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

Page 344 U. S. 99

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

Page 344 U. S. 100

Article 5-C is challenged as invalid under the constitutional prohibition against interference with the exercise of religion. [Footnote 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. [Footnote 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

Page 344 U. S. 101

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 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. Seenote 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 following the fall of the Czar. A patriarch was elected and installed -- Tikhon, who had been the first American Archbishop. Uncertainties as to the succession to and administration of the American archbishopric made their appearance following this sobor, and were largely induced

Page 344 U. S. 102

by the almost contemporaneous political disturbances which culminated swiftly in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Russian Orthodox Church was drawn into this maelstrom. After a few years, the Patriarch was imprisoned. There were suggestions of his counter-revolutionary activity. Church power was transferred, partly through a sobor considered by many as noncanonical to a Supreme Church Council. The declared reforms were said to have resulted in a "Living Church," or sometimes in a "Renovated Church." Circumstances and pressures changed. Patriarch Tikhon was released from prison, and died in 1925. He named three bishops as locum tenens for the patriarchal throne. It was one of these, Sergius, who, in 1933, appointed the appellant Benjamin as Archbishop. The Church was registered as a religious organization under Soviet law in 1927. Thereafter, the Russian Church and the Russian State approached, if not a reconciliation, at least an adjustment, which eventuated by 1943 in the election of Sergius, one of the bishops named as locum tenens by Tikhon, to the Patriarchate. The Living or Renovated Church, whether deemed a reformed, a schismatic or a new church, apparently withered away. After Sergius' death, a new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexi, was chosen Patriarch in 1945 at Moscow at a sobor recognized by all parties to this litigation as a true sobor held in accordance with the church canons. [Footnote 7]

The Russian upheaval caused repercussions in the North American diocese. That Diocese, at the time of the Soviet Revolution ,recognized the spiritual and administrative

Page 344 U. S. 103

control of Moscow. White Russians, both lay and clerical, found asylum in America from the revolutionary conflicts, strengthening the feeling of abhorrence of the secular attitude of the new Russian Government. The church members already here, immigrants and native-born, while habituated to look to Moscow for religious direction, were accustomed to our theory of separation between church and state. The Russian turmoil, the restraints on religious activities, and the evolution of a new ecclesiastical hierarchy in the form of the "Living Church," deemed noncanonical or schismatic by most churchmen, made very difficult Russian administration of the American diocese. Furthermore, Patriarch Tikhon, on November 20, 1920, issued Decision No. 362 relating to church administration for troublesome times. This granted a large measure of autonomy, when the Russian ruling authority was unable to function, subject to "confirmation later to the Central Church Authority when it is reestablished." Naturally the growing number of American-born members of the Russian Church did not cling to a hierarchy identified with their country of remote origin with the same national feeling that moved their immigrant ancestors. These facts and forces generated in America a separatist movement.

That movement brought about the arrangements at the Detroit Sobor of 1924 for a temporary American administration of the church on account of the disturbances in Russia. [Footnote 8] This was followed by the declarations of autonomy of the successive sobors since that date, a spate of

Page 344 U. S. 104

litigation concerning control of the various churches and occupancy of ecclesiastical positions, [Footnote 9] the New York legislation (known as Article 5-C, notes 2 and 3, supra), and this controversy.

Delegates from the North American Diocese intended to be represented at an admittedly canonical Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church held in 1945 at Moscow. They did not arrive in time, on account of delays responsibility for which has not been fixed. The following stipulation appears as to their later actions while at Moscow:

"It is stipulated that Bishop Alexi and Father Dzvonchik, representing the local group of American Churches under Bishop Theophilus, appeared before the Patriarch and the members of his Synod in Moscow, presented a written report on the condition of the American Church, with a request for autonomy, and a few days later received from the Patriarch the Ukase. . . . "

Page 344 U. S. 105

There came to the Russian Church in America this Ukase of the Moscow Patriarchy of February 14 or 16, 1945, covering Moscow's requirements for reunion of the American Orthodox Church with the Russian. It required for reunion that the Russian Church in America hold promptly an "all American Orthodox Church Sobor;" that it express the decision of the dioceses to reunite with the Russian Mother Church, declare the agreement of the American Orthodox Church to abstain "from political activities against the U.S.S.R." and so direct its parishes, and elect a Metropolitan subject to confirmation by the Moscow Patriarchy. The decree said,

"In view of the distance of the American Metropolitan District from the Russian Mother Church . . . , the Metropolitan-Exarch . . . may be given some extended powers by the Moscow Patriarchy. . . ."

The American congregations, speaking through their Cleveland Sobor of 1946, refused the proffered arrangement and resolved in part:

"That any administrative recognition of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad is hereby terminated, retaining, however, out spiritual and brotherly relations with all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad. . . ."

This ended the efforts to compose the differences between the Mother Church and its American offspring, and this litigation and the enactment of Article 5-C of the Religious Corporations Law of New York followed. We understand the above factual summary corresponds substantially with the factual basis for determination formulated by the Court of Appeals of New York. From those circumstances, it seems clear that the Russian Orthodox Church was, until the Russian Revolution, an hierarchical church with unquestioned paramount jurisdiction in the governing body in Russia over the American Metropolitanate. Nothing indicates that either the Sacred Synod or the succeeding Patriarchs

Page 344 U. S. 106

relinquished that authority or recognized the autonomy of the American church. The Court of Appeals decision proceeds, we understand, upon the same assumption. 302 N.Y. at 5, 23, 24, 96 N.E.2d at 57, 68, 69. That court did consider

"whether there exists in Moscow at the present time a true central organization of the Russian Orthodox Church capable of functioning as the head of a free international religious body."

It concluded that this aspect of the controversy had not been sufficiently developed to justify a judgment upon that ground. 302 N.Y. at 22-24, 96 N.E.2d at 67-69.

The Religious Corporations Law. -- The New York Court of Appeals depended for its judgment, refusing recognition to Archbishop Benjamin, the appointee of the Moscow Hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, upon Article 5-C of the Religious Corporations Law, quoted and analyzed at notes 2 and | 2 and S. 94fn3|>3, supra. [Footnote 10] Certainly a legislature

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