Belya (and all the other defamation cases in the long pipeline) versus ROCOR

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

February 8, 2023

By Daniel Wiessner

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


Case 21-1498, Document 297, 02/08/2023, 3465457, Page 2 of 12

“First, the Dissent writes that “[t]his case arises from a minister’s suspension

by his church,” and that the lawsuit “is styled as a defamation claim.” Dissent at

  1. The suggestion is that this case is not really a defamation case, but instead

seeks to intrude on a church’s autonomy by subjecting Defendants “to litigation

over religious matters.” Id. at 10. In fact, this is a defamation case and not a case

over religious matters. If Belya’s allegations are true — and we must assume they

are for now — this is, as the first amended complaint (the “Complaint”) declares, “a

case of egregious defamation.” J. App’x at 87. If the allegations are true,

Defendants made public accusations that Belya forged and fabricated certain

documents, including accusations that Belya forged the signature of the “ruling

bishop” of ROCOR onto two letters, that he fabricated or otherwise improperly

obtained official letterhead, and that he falsely affixed to the letters what appeared

to be the ruling bishop’s official seal. See id. at 95-97. The allegation that Belya

committed forgery was posted on the church’s social media site by one or more of

the Defendants and was re-posted and circulated by religious news outlets and

publications. Id. at 98.


Case 21-1498, Document 297, 02/08/2023, 3465457, Page 3 of 12

“Simple, non-ecclesiastical factual questions are presented: Did Belya forge

the letters in question? Or did the ruling bishop actually sign the letters? Were

the letters on the ruling bishop’s official letterhead? Were the letters stamped

with the purported signatory’s official seal? Or were the purported letterhead

and stamps a fabrication? These are factual questions that a fact-finder could

answer without delving into matters of faith and doctrine.

Significantly, the Complaint seeks only damages (and attorney’s fees and

costs) and not injunctive or declaratory relief. The Complaint does not seek an

order declaring that Belya was in fact elected to the position of Bishop of Miami or

an injunction requiring Defendants to install him into that or any other position;

nor does it seek to vacate Belya’s suspension from the church. See Belya v.

Hilarion, No. 20-CV-6597, 2021 WL 1997547, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 19, 2021) (district

court noting that “Belya does not ask this Court to determine whether his election

was proper or whether he should be reinstated to his role as Bishop of Miami”).

Rather, the Complaint asserts only three defamation claims and a fourth claim for

vicarious liability related to the defamation claims, and it seeks only damages.

This is, indeed, a defamation case.”