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U.S. Supreme Court

Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976)

Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich

No. 75-292

Argued March 22, 1976

Decided June 21, 1976

426 U.S. 696


During the course of a protracted dispute over the control of the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States and Canada, the Holy Assembly of Bishops and the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church (Mother Church) suspended and ultimately removed and defrocked the Bishop, respondent Dionisije, and appointed petitioner Firmilian as Administrator of the Diocese, which the Mother Church then reorganized into three Dioceses. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a hierarchical church, and the sole power to appoint and remove its Bishops rests in the Holy Assembly and Holy Synod. Dionisije filed suit in the Illinois courts seeking to enjoin petitioners from interfering with Diocesan assets of respondent not-for-profit Illinois corporations and to have himself declared the true Diocesan Bishop. After a lengthy trial, the trial court resolved most of the disputed issues in favor of petitioners. The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that Dionisije's removal and defrockment had to be set aside as "arbitrary" because the proceedings against him had not in its view been conducted in accordance with the Church's constitution and penal code, and that the Diocesan reorganization was invalid because it exceeded the scope of the Mother Church's authority to effectuate such changes without Diocesan approval.


1. The holding of the Illinois Supreme Court constituted improper judicial interference with the decisions of a hierarchical church and in thus interposing its judgment into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance and polity, the court contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 426 U. S. 708-725.

(a) "[W]henever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of [the] church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding. . . ." @ 80 U. S. 727. Pp. 426 U. S. 708-712.

(b) Under the guise of "minimal" review of the Mother

Page 426 U. S. 697

Church's decisions that the Illinois Supreme Court deemed "arbitrary," that court has unconstitutionally undertaken the adjudication of quintessentially religious controversies whose resolution the First Amendment commits exclusively to the highest ecclesiastical tribunals of this hierarchical church. Pp. 426 U. S. 712-720.

2. Though it did not rely on the "fraud, collusion, or arbitrariness" exception to the rule requiring recognition by civil courts of decisions by hierarchical tribunals, but rather on purported "neutral principles" for resolving property disputes in reaching its conclusion that the Mother Church's reorganization of the American-Canadian Diocese into three Dioceses was invalid, that conclusion also contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The reorganization of the Diocese involves solely a matter of internal church government, an issue at the core of ecclesiastical affairs. Religious freedom encompasses the "power [of religious bodies] to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U. S. 94, 344 U. S. 116. Pp. 426 U. S. 720-724.

60 Ill.2d 477, 328 N.E.2d 268, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 426 U. S. 725. BURGER, C.J.,concurred in the judgment. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 426 U. S. 725.

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