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Lawyer sued for ‘fake nun’ comment wins appellate ruling that court can’t decide religious issue

Posted Apr 11, 2013 8:42 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: A Chicago-based federal appeals court has ruled on behalf of a lawyer seeking to prove the truth of his comment that a woman was a “fake nun.”

Sued for defamation, Indiana lawyer Kevin McCarthy produced a statement by the Holy See’s diplomatic mission to the United States that the plaintiff, Patricia Fuller, is no longer a nun nor a religious sister. In a ruling by Judge Richard Posner, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held on Wednesday that, once a court satisfies itself that there is an authoritative church ruling on whether Fuller is a nun, it cannot question the resolution. The Associated Press has a story on the decision, noted by the Volokh Conspiracy and How Appealing.

Fuller had countersued McCarthy for defamation after he sued her in a dispute over the ownership of religious memorabilia related to an “Our Lady of America” apparition.

“The origins of the litigation go back to 1956,” Posner wrote, when Sister Mary Ephrem "experienced a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, in the course of which Mary had told Sister Ephrem (according to the latter’s report): ‘I am Our Lady of America.’ ” Sister Ephrem later formed a congregation with Fuller and another sister dedicated to promoting devotions to Our Lady of America, and later willed all of her property to Fuller.

McCarthy and another man, Albert Langsenkamp, had worked with Fuller beginning in 2005 to help her with devotions to Our Lady of America, but a bitter disagreement in 2007 led to the 2008 suit. After the disagreement, Langsenkamp set up the Langsenkamp Family Apostolate in the Indiana city where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to Sister Ephrem. "Vigorously seconded and assisted by McCarthy, Langsenkamp claims to be the authentic promoter of devotions to Our Lady of America and to be entitled to possession of the documents and artifacts," according to the opinion.

The original suit by McCarthy and Langsenkamp claimed conversion of physical and intellectual property, fraud and defamation. Fuller's counterclaim alleged defamation over the fake nun comment, and also claimed that the men had stolen a statue of Our Lady of America and a website of the Our Lady of America Center.

McCarthy argues that Sister Ephrem had taken a vow of poverty, didn't own the disputed property, and could not have bequeathed it to Fuller.

A lower court judge had said the issue of whether Fuller was a nun could be decided by a jury. The case came before the 7th Circuit on an interlocutory appeal of that issue.

Posner referred to the Bible and the Constitution in explaining why the church ruling governs. "The commingling of religious and secular justice would violate not only the injunction in Matthew 22:21 to 'render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's,' but also the First Amendment, which forbids the government to make religious judgments," the ruling says.

Updated at 10:10 a.m. to include additional details.

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