Dan Knudsen

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The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is a long-held constitutional principle that prohibits a court from resolving a dispute that is inherently religious in nature. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine's practical application requires a court to either abstain from fact-finding issues that are based on religious doctrine or church governance, or defer to the decisions handed down by the church leadership or a hierarchical authority. An implicit concept within the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is the necessity for there to be an interchurch dispute”namely, one that is confined to a local church body or a hierarchically structured religious organization. Since not every dispute within a church is fundamentally religious, courts are not precluded from resolving certain church disputes using neutral principles of law. A neutral property or contract issue may not necessarily impermissibly intrude on the First Amendment. This Note examines the Illinois Second District Appellate Court's confrontation with the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in the insightful case of Puskar v. Krco. The majority and dissenting opinions in Puskar represent the difficulty of adjudicating disagreements when it is unclear whether a religious question is inescapably intertwined or merely peripheral. Puskar would have been legally insignificant if the outcome turned solely on whether an appointed Serbian Orthodox Church bishop owed a duty of loyalty to the higher appointing authority or the local diocese. However, before duty of loyalty could be decided, the local diocese, a former affiliate of the Serbian Church, contested that it had officially reunited with the hierarchical Serbian Orthodox Church to become re-affiliated. Reunification was contested because the local diocese and the Serbian Orthodox Church disagreed whether a contract they had enacted to guide their transition to reunify remained in effect. Nearly lost in the conflict was the bishop whom the local diocese had allowed the Serbian Orthodox Church to appoint over them, even though he was a focal point of the lawsuit. The bishop had been appointed in accordance with a provision contained in the transitional contract, and the local diocese did not dispute the legitimacy of the appointment, even though the appointment occurred at a time it would later conclude must have fallen after the transitional contract had expired. The majority in Puskar held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not apply because the transitional contract had expired, and thus the former affiliate and the Serbian Orthodox Church were separate and distinct organizations. The dissent in Puskar would have applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine due to the inherently religious questions the court faced. The dissent disagreed with the majority's matter of fact holding that the transitional contract had expired, and instead focused on what appeared to be sufficient evidence that the former affiliate and the Serbian Orthodox Church had either reunified or remained under the transitional contract. This Note analyzes Puskar in comparison to other Illinois appellate court cases, and concludes that Puskar's dissenting position was more correct to reach its determination.

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Northern Illinois University Law Review

Suggested Citation

Dan Knudsen, Note, Wrestling With the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine: How Puskar v. Krco Further Complicated the Heavily Litigated History of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America, 36 N. Ill. U. L. Rev. 139 (2015).

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