New York Court Skips Inter-Religious Conflicts

Courts in New York say the constitutional separation of church and state prevents them from intervening in internal disputes in religious groups.

In recent months, appeals courts there have turned away a lawsuit by Greek Orthodox congregants over changes to the religious group’s charter and a case involving a family feud between two Hasidic rabbis.

Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman ruled that parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America could not challenge in civil court amendments to the religious organization’s 1977 charter.

Last year, 34 congregants sued the archdiocese arguing that alterations made in 2003 to the church’s charter had not been correctly approved by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constan­tinople. According to Religion News Service, the changes included modifications to the rules governing vacancies for archbishop and qualifications for archbishop candidates.

The parishioners’ lawsuit “must be dismissed because it involves a question of internal governance of a hierarchical church,” Gammerman wrote in Pappas v. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America for the state Supreme Court Appellate Division.

Gammerman concluded that “courts simply do not have the authority to interfere with the manner in which churches organize the titles of their clerics, to determine the eligibility criteria for candidates for archbishop or bishop, to oversee monasteries, or to inject the state judicial authority into the other matters raised by this action.”

In July, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court also refused to involve itself in a dispute between two brothers vying to become grand rabbi of the Yetev Lev D’Satmar congregation. The New York Times reported that Zalmen and Aaron Teitelbaum are engaged in a bitter battle over the position formerly held by their father Moses, who died in spring.

The appellate division ruled 3-1 that the dispute “cannot be decided by application of neutral principles of law” and “would necessarily involve impermissible inquires into religious doctrine and the Congregation’s membership requirements.” (In the Matter of Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar v. Kahana).