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Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA v. Luchejko

A-0854-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

CHURCHES—If a court can’t resolve a dispute within a church, such as a property dispute, without answering religious questions, it must abstain from involvement.

A dispute arose between two groups of parishioners in a local Ukrainian Orthodox Ascension Church when the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EPC) and the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA (UOC), acting through the church’s Archbishop, executed a “Points of Agreement.” This Agreement caused dissension within the church, the majority of whom believed that the Archbishop had abandoned the UOC when he entered into the agreement. Those aggrieved by the Agreement claimed its execution vitiated the UOC’s independence. As a result, a majority of the church’s members voted for their church to remain a UOC parish, but also to withhold the funds that their church was required to pay its Mother Church. The majority also fired its UOC-approved priest, replacing him with a priest who was neither approved nor appointed by the UOC and who had prevented the majority from voting at a parish meeting. In response, the minority began to worship at a funeral home chapel under the direction of a UOC-appointed priest. That minority group paid the required dues directly to the Mother Church. The Archbishop then recognized certain members of the minority as the parish’s lawful leadership.

The UOC, Archbishop, the terminated priest, and the minority parishioners sued the parish. The lower court concluded that the UOC was a hierarchical church, that the parish had violated its obligations to the Mother Church, and that the parish’s lawful leadership was comprised of those members of the minority recognized by the Archbishop. Accordingly, it ordered the majority to turn over the parish administration to those people and to deliver all books and records to the minority group. The majority group appealed.

The Appellate Division held that because a resolution of the issue would have required the Court to first decide a religious dispute, the First and Fourteenth Amendments required the Court’s abstention because such a decision would have impermissibly involved the civil courts in the determination of religious issues. Specifically, the Court stated that it could not resolve the purported property dispute without initially determining two religious questions: First, whether the UOC hierarchy subordinated the UOC to the EPC; and if so, whether such subordination was outside the scope of the hierarchy’s authority. Second, whether the parties failed to first resolve their religious differences by exhausting the remedies available to them within the UOC, parish structures, and governing documents. If the parish majority believed that the hierarchy impermissibly subordinated the UOC to the EPC, its membership could have either instituted an action in the UOC Church Court or seceded from the Mother Church. If the UOC believed that the parish had failed to abide by its obligations to the Mother Church, it could have excommunicated the dissenting majority. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that the First and Fourteenth Amendments required a civil court to abstain from deciding the matter.

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