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Nun Sequitur: Jury Can't Decide Religious Question

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 10, 2013 4:15 PM

Federal courts get the opportunity to resolve the great debates of our time. In 2001, the Nine were asked to answer the question, “What is golf?” This week, Judge Richard Posner and the Seventh Circuit — not ones to be outdone by Justice Scalia and the Supremes — addressed an equally important issue: Who decides if a  Catholic nun is really a “nun.”

(Hint: If you guessed the Catholic Church, you’re correct.)

The appellate court's role in the matter stemmed from a mess of litigation charging RICO, trademark, and copyright violations, as well as Indiana torts.

The Seventh Circuit explains that "the origins of this litigation go back to 1956, when Sister Mary Ephrem, a Catholic Sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus ... had experienced a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary," as "Our Lady of America." The apparitions led to an "elaborate program of devotions to Our Lady of America."

Sister Ephrem later formed a new congregation called the Contemplative Sisters of the Indwelling Trinity, which was dedicated to promoting devotions to Our Lady of America.

When Sister Ephrem died, she willed her property -- most of it related to devotions of Our Lady of America and purchased with money donated to the Contemplative Sisters of the Our Lady of America Center -- to Sister Mary Joseph Therese (birth name: Patricia Fuller).

In 2005, Kevin McCarthy (a lawyer and Catholic layman) and Albert Langsenkamp (who claims to be a Papal Knight of the Holy Sepulcher) offered to help Sister Therese with the devotions. The pair subsequently sued Sister Therese, accusing her of fraud, theft, and defamation. They also claimed that Langsenkamp was the authentic promoter of the devotions and entitled to the Our Lady of America property. Sister Therese counterclaimed that Langsenkamp and McCarthy were the real thieving villains, and that they defamed her by calling her a "fake nun."

Since there was actually a question of whether Sister Therese was a sister, a nun, or a member of any religious order, the district court decided that the jury should be responsible for answering the "nun" question. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that juries should not wade into religious question waters. Here, the Catholic Church should answer the question for the courts.

The appellate panel wrote:

The Holy See has spoken, laying to rest any previous doubts: Fuller [Sister Therese] 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.

People say you shouldn't talk about politics or religion at a party. It seems that the same rules apply to jury decisions.

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