Catholic Church Pension Battle Kicked Back to Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Monday vacated a ruling out of Puerto Rico that set payment and seizure orders over a disbanded pension plan for Roman Catholic school employees.

Rather than hold oral arguments in the challenge led by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, the justices opted to summarily vacate the underlying orders and remand for further proceedings.

“We think the preferable course at this point is to remand the case to the Puerto Rico courts to consider how to proceed in light of the jurisdictional defect we have identified,” the unsigned opinion states.

Defining the religious schools within the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico lies at the heart of the case. When the active and retired employees sued the archdiocese over the 2016 termination of their benefits, they named as defendant one legal body alleged to have supervisory authority over all Catholic institutions on the island.

This posed a problem for injunctive relief, however, when an appeals court concluded that the defendant “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church of Puerto Rico” was nonexistent, legally speaking.

The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ultimately reinstated the injunction, ruling that the individual schools “are merely indivisible fragments of the legal personality that the Catholic Church has.”

The archdiocese meanwhile claims that each diocese and parish in Puerto Rico represent separate legal entities. It says the court was wrong to disregard this classification since the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment mean that the church has the final say when it comes to questions on church structure.

“Whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them,” the archdiocese said in its petition for certiorari, quoting the 1871 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Watson v. Jones. 

Monday’s ruling meanwhile takes issue with the payment and seizure orders granted initially, saying that the Court of First Instance in Puerto Rico lacked jurisdiction.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito warned that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court had wrongly relied on the precedent from the 1908 case Municipality of Ponce v. Roman Catholic Apostolic Church in Porto Rico.

“The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico held that Ponce decided that in Puerto Rico the Catholic Church is a single entity for purposes of civil liability,” Alito wrote, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. “That was incorrect.”

The justice further warned that more difficult First Amendment questions lurk beneath the surface and may merit review, including what degree the government can question a religious body’s own understanding of its structure.

Paul Clement, an attorney with Kirkland Ellis representing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, did not respond to a request for comment. E. Joshua Rosenkranz, an attorney for the school employee with the firm Orrick Herrington, also has not returned a request for comment.

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