U.S. Supreme Court Vacates Puerto Rico Court Decision that Threatened Church, Religious Freedom

First Liberty Institute argued on behalf of religious schools in support of writ of Certiorari in case where court interfered with church autonomy, governance

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Today, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it has vacated a decision by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court that overrides the long-standing structure of Catholic churches and schools. The Justices then sent the case back to the lower court for further review. On behalf of two Catholic schools, First Liberty Institute urged the Court to hear the petition filed by the Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“Our clients are pleased that the court vacated the Puerto Rico court’s ruling that jeopardized their ability to operate without government interference,” said Lea Patterson, Counsel to First Liberty Institute. “If a court can dictate a church’s operating structure, it’s only a matter of time until government tells churches what they can believe. The Supreme Court’s decision is an important step towards protecting religious liberty in Puerto Rico.”

First Liberty represents two parochial schools in Puerto Rico. In 2016, former employees of various Catholic schools brought suit against a number of Catholic entities, including the two schools. On appeal, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision finding that individual Catholic churches and schools don’t exist as independent, legal entities, despite one of the schools, Academia del Perpetuo Socorro, holding its own corporate certificate since 1968. Instead, the court deemed all Catholic entities in Puerto Rico jointly liable for claims against the “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico,” an entity that doesn’t exist.

In its brief urging the Court to review the case, First Liberty argued, “By assigning legal personality to an entity that does not exist within the Catholic Church’s polity while dissolving the legal personalities of entities that do exist within that structure, the decision below destroys the hierarchical polity governing Catholic churches and other Catholic entities throughout Puerto Rico.”

The Justices concluded that the trial court did not have jurisdiction because it entered its original order while the federal district court was considering whether to take up the case. Justices Thomas and Alito added, “As the Solicitor General notes, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment at a minimum demands that all jurisdictions use neutral rules in determining whether particular entities that are associated in some way with a religious body may be held responsible for debts incurred by other associated entities.”

The case is Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, et al. v. Yalí Acevedo Feliciano, Sonia Arroyo Velázquez, Elsie Alvarado Rivera, et al. (Supreme Court docket number 18-921).

About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

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