Rick Garnett has posted a thoughtful essay on the relatively little-known case of Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, which the Supreme Court decided in 1952. At the height of the Cold War, a dispute arose between the Moscow Patriarchate, the supreme head of the Russian Orthodox Church around the world, and the Church’s American diocese. The American diocese had elected its own bishop and refused to acknowledge the bishop appointed by Moscow, whom the Americans viewed, undoubtedly correctly, as compromised by the Soviets. The New York State Legislature sided with the Americans and passed a law that, in effect, reorganized the Russian Orthodox Church in America and gave control over church property to the local bishop.
The Supreme Court held the law unconstitutional. New York had no authority to reorganize a church and interfere in what was, in the end, an internal church matter. Under the First Amendment, a religious body could organize itself, and settle internal controversies, according to its own ecclesiastical rules. The existing rules of the Russian Orthodox Church in America gave the Moscow Patriarchate the right to appoint the bishop for the American diocese, and New York would have to defer.
As Rick points out, this case is noteworthy for two things. First, it testifies to the American commitment to religious freedom. Relations between the US and the Soviet Union were particularly frosty in 1952, and everyone knew that the Moscow Patriarchate was controlled by the Communists. Yet the Court deferred to internal church rules all the same. To do otherwise would have made the state the arbiter of, well, Orthodoxy, an entanglement if ever there was one. Second, the case stands for the principle of church autonomy, the idea that religious freedom is not simply a matter of individual conscience, but institutional independence from the state. As Rick shows, this principle continues to have ramifications in First Amendment law today.
Visitors to New York’s Upper East Side can see St. Nicholas Cathedral, by the way, a lovely, onion-domed structure, still under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Of course, things are different now; the Communists are long gone. There’s even an icon of Tsar Nicholas himself. — MLM