Serbian Orthodox Church Diocese for the United States v. Milivojevich (1976)

Serbian was the third of a trio of cases [see Watson v. Jones and Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church] establishing the principle of judicial non-interference with ecclesiastical government. Its rather complicated facts arose out of internal disputes within the international Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. A local ecclesiastical official sought judicial intervention, claiming that the decisions made by the Mother Church with respect to division of authority and leadership were made arbitrarily and contrary to church law.

The Supreme Court ruled that United States courts could not become involved in such disputes, even if the church proceedings were arbitrary and lacked due process of law. The Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause precludes intervention by civil courts in internal disputes of church governance, and decisions imposed by hierarchical religious organizations are binding in civil courts.

“For where resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry by civil courts into religious law and polity, the First and Fourteenth Amendments mandate that civil courts shall not disturb the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal within a church of hierarchical polity, but must accept such decisions as binding on them, in their application to the religious issues of doctrine or polity before them.”