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7th Circuit: Federal courts or juries can’t decide religious questions

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Taking up three appeals stemming from a lawsuit filed surrounding control of religious documents and artifacts from the appearance of the Virgin Mary, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a federal judge erred in ruling that it should be up to a jury to decide whether a party to the lawsuit is still a religious sister.

Kevin B. McCarthy, et al., and Langsenkamp Family Apostolate, et al. v. Patricia Ann Fuller, et al., 12-2157, 12-2257, 12-2262, has been pending in federal court in Indianapolis for five years. The lawsuit is over who can be allowed to promote devotions to Our Lady of America and who may possess related artifacts. Sister Mary Ephrem saw the Virgin Mary appear in Rome City, Ind. in 1956 and programs of devotions to Our Lady were created. Ephrem was a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus when she and two other women broke off and created their own congregation. When Ephrem died, she left all her possessions – which were related to Our Lady – to Sister Mary Joseph Therese, born Patricia Fuller.

In 2005, attorney Kevin McCarthy and Albert H. Langsenkamp worked out an agreement to help Fuller with the devotions to Our Lady. But they had a falling out in 2007, leading to this suit over who should own the possessions and promote Our Lady. The main issue the 7th Circuit looked at was the claim McCarthy made that Fuller is a “fake nun,” which led to Fuller’s defamation counterclaim. McCarthy obtained a statement from the Apostolic Nunicature of the Holy See that Fuller is no longer a nun or religious sister and hasn’t been since 1983.

Judge William Lawrence decided that this issue should go before a jury. The 7th Circuit obtained a 51-page amicus brief from the Holy See on whether Fuller is still a member of a religious order. The Holy See said she is not since she left and joined the new congregation.

“In it the Holy See has spoken, laying to rest any previous doubts: Fuller has not been a member of any Catholic religious order for more than 30 years. Period. The district judge has no authority to question that ruling. A jury has no authority to question it. We have no authority to question it,” Judge Richard Posner wrote.

The 7th Circuit dismissed the other two appeals before it for either being premature or not final rulings.

 

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