US Greeks file suit saying their church violated its charter

NEW YORK – Escalating a church power struggle, prominent Greek Orthodox parishioners filed suit on Tuesday asking the New York State Supreme Court to require that the 1.5-million-member, nationwide Greek archdiocese obey its own governing charter. The lawsuit says the Greek hierarchy imposed a rewritten charter last year without approval from delegates at a national Clergy-Laity Congress, as required. The suit says the action violated the old charter from 1978. Thirty-five plaintiffs from 17 states joined the suit, which names the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and its leader, Archbishop Demetrios, as defendants. However, their complaint is ultimately with Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I and his hierarchy, which has direct jurisdiction over the US archdiocese. The plaintiffs want the US Greek Church to be more self-governing. They told a news conference that the hierarchy in Turkey is trying to reduce the rights of American priests and parishioners. Evan Chriss, a lawyer and longtime member of the Archdiocesan Council, said other US Orthodox denominations are no longer «micro-managed» from overseas. However, Istanbul still chooses bishops for the US Greek Church, for example, and must authorize charter changes. Though secular courts are reluctant to enter church disputes, Chriss said this case will proceed because it involves neutral principles of corporation and contract law, not doctrine. A statement from the archdiocese’s New York headquarters said: «We cannot comment on any lawsuit until we have examined the papers. However, based on the press release, we believe any such lawsuit is totally without merit.» Back in 2002, delegates at a Clergy-Laity Congress wanted the Istanbul hierarchy to grant Americans the right to nominate candidates for archbishop, who would then be chosen in Istanbul. The Americans also wanted the power to elect other US bishops by themselves. But the charter put in place last year by top officials in Istanbul and New York, without approval from a congress, makes election of the archbishop «the exclusive privilege» of Istanbul, with Americans only allowed to submit opinions. Other US bishops are chosen in Istanbul from nominees submitted by Americans. The plaintiffs also say the 2003 charter erodes the power of the 50-member Archdiocesan Council, a body including parish priests and a lay majority. The lawsuit asks the Supreme Court to reinstitute the terms of the old charter. It is not seeking monetary damages. Whatever happens in court, the dissenters want to force the charter issue onto the floor at the next Clergy-Laity Congress, in New York from July 25-29. George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity, which is funding the suit, said, «We take this action with a heavy heart.» But, he said, it was necessary because the hierarchy refused to discuss the situation.