The Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY
The Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY ()

A Brooklyn appellate court has dismissed a long-time congregant’s suit against his former church, holding it could not resolve a lawsuit linked to the Russian Orthodox Church without wading into interpretations of religious doctrine that were prohibited by the First Amendment.

Oleg Rodzianko had been a member of Parish of the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack for nearly 60 years before he left and sued over the church’s alleged adherence to a pact between leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church that intended to heal an 80-year schism caused by Communist rule.

On May 7, the Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld a lower court’s dismissal of Rodzianko’s suit, finding his claims could not be “resolved based on neutral principles of law.”

Justices William Mastro, Cheryl Chambers, Plummer Lott and Colleen Duffy decided Rodzianko v. Parish of the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Protection Church, 2012-09981 after the case was submitted for decision on March 21.

Rodzianko, the son of anti-Bolshevik parents who fled to Yugoslavia after the Russian Revolution, moved to Rockland County in 1949 and became one of the original parish members.

In 1954, the parish filed its certificate of incorporation, which forbade it from maintaining relationships “with any ecclesiastical officers or organizations within the boundaries of or subject to the jurisdiction of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or any of its satellite states, so long as the said Union, or any of its satellite states, are ruled by Communistic authorities.”

Rodzianko, an engineer, was active in parish functions. For example, he pledged $12,000 of his own money and helped raise funds in the early 1980s for a parish building project. He also assisted in the building’s construction, said his attorney, Robert Prier of Nyack.

In 2007, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church signed the “Acts of Canonical Communion.”

In 2012, Rodzianko sued his former parish, claiming that by going along with the 2007 act it had breached its incorporation terms. He said that despite the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Communists still effectively ruled Russia.

Rodzianko sought to block the parish from “taking any further steps to merge or consolidate” with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The church countered that Rodzianko’s lawsuit was not a matter for secular courts to decide. “It is impossible to divine an adjudicatory role for a civil court in this case that would not intrude upon the church’s ecclesiastical domain,” said the parish, which was represented by Richard Mongelli of Manhattan.

Moreover, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia “gradually regained its freedom,” the parish contended.

Rodzianko maintained that the question of whether “Communistic authorities” still ruled Russia was “a political question which can in fact be decided without any reference whatsoever to church teachings or doctrine.”

Although Rodzianko claimed a merger was planned between the U.S. and Russian churches, the parish countered that there had been no governance changes. The only alteration was its current recognition of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church during services, the parish said.

In 2012, Rockland County Supreme Court Justice Robert Berliner dismissed the suit, ruling he lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

“To determine whether or not the defendant has violated its certificate of incorporation would require this court to interpret church doctrine, and to interpret various acts propounded by the church hierarchy,” Berliner said.

In its unanimous unsigned ruling, the Second Department panel affirmed, saying an adjudication of Rodzianko’s suit would “necessarily involve an impermissible inquiry into religious doctrine or practice.”

In an interview, Prier said “we were disappointed the court didn’t recognize our argument” that whether Russia was still under Communist control was a “political decision that could have been ruled on.”

In May 2013, Rodzianko, then 90, died while his case was pending.

With his death, Prier said he did not believe there would be a further appeal.

Mongelli, counsel to the parish, said the decision to enter the accord was made above the parish level, by the hierarchy in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. “We are obviously pleased with the holding” in both the lower court and appellate level “and think it was the right result,” he said.

Mongelli represented the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in a similar New Jersey case in 2007. After a five-day bench trial, the judge determined property disputes could be resolved, but nothing related to the canonical communion, Mongelli said.