A New York judge has sided with the Greek Orthodox Church in a fight over its constitution, ruling that the court has no authority to interfere in an internal church dispute.

State Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman on August 6 dismissed a suit brought by lay activists that said the church's charter, or constitution, had been improperly adopted in a violation of state corporate law.

"The First Amendment to the United States Constitution precludes courts from intervening in ecclesiastical matters, such as church governance, to resolve disputes involving religious organizations," Gammerman ruled.

Church officials released the judge's decision Thursday.

Restive parishioners, led by the independent group Orthodox Christian Laity, had charged that the charter "granted" by leaders of world Orthodoxy last year is not the same one they adopted during a 2002 convention.

The suit brought to the surface long-standing complaints from lay activists that they have been shut out of decision-making. They also accuse church leaders of bending to the will of Old World Orthodox leaders who have little tolerance for the American church's democratic impulses.

The new charter approved by Orthodox leaders in Istanbul rejected changes adopted in 2002 that attempted to carve out a minimal degree of influence for U.S. parishioners in selecting archbishops and other matters.

Thirty-four parishioners filed suit in February, asking the courts to invalidate the new charter and force the church to operate under its old constitution from 1977.

In his ruling, Gammerman said he had no jurisdiction to broker the dispute.

"The courts 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 other matters raised by this action," he wrote.

Gammerman seemed to dismiss parishioners' claims to democratically decide how the church should be run. "I do not think it can seriously be disputed that the Greek Orthodox Church is hierarchical," he said.

Nikki Stephanopoulos, a spokeswoman for the church, said Thursday there would be no official response because the church's top leader, Archbishop Demetrios, was in Greece as part of the official U.S. delegation to the Summer Olympics.

But Bishop Savas, the church's chancellor, said the judge's decision grants church leaders much more leeway to direct the church in ways they see fit.

"There will always be a dissenting voice," he said. "There's room for a dissenting voice, sure, but is the church going to be run by the dissenters? Certainly not."

Savas has characterized Orthodox Christian Laity as a collection of disgruntled malcontents who can never be truly satisfied.

"There are one or two of them in every parish in the United States," he said, "and through the miracle of the Internet they managed to find each other."

George Matsoukas, the group's executive director, said the ruling reflects the hierarchy's vision of a "monolithic, you-march-in-step kind of church" where discussion is not tolerated.

He also said it would delay long-cherished dreams for a single, autonomous, multiethnic Orthodox church in North America that would unite Orthodox faithful who are currently spread across nine separate churches.

Orthodox leaders in Istanbul have taken a rather dim view of such a united church, even though at least three Orthodox churches in the United States now operate independently from their mother churches overseas.

"What is it they said in the civil rights movement? Keep your eyes on the prize?" he said. "That's our prize."

Related Elsewhere:

The full text of the decision is available from the New York Supreme Court website.

Our earlier coverage of the lawsuit and Greek Orthodox tensions includes:

Orthodox Division | Greek Orthodox prepare for contentious assembly in New York (July 26, 2004)
Weblog: Greek Orthodox Group Power Battle Goes to Court | American Greek Orthodox sue archdiocese (Feb. 4, 2004)
America's Greek Orthodox Leader Hopes Church's Divisions Are Healing | Archbishop Demetrios pushing for more available, participatory church (Jan. 13, 2000)
American Growing Pains Strain Relations with Patriarch (Dec. 8, 1997)

More coverage of Eastern Orthodoxy is available in our full coverage area, which includes an article on recent developments in making Orthodoxy in America more united and autonomous.