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Article updated: 4/10/2013 10:52 PM

A nun or not? Panel says it's not up to courts

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Who is properly deemed a Catholic nun or sister?

Courts themselves have no place answering such religious questions, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled Wednesday in a civil dispute that involves a woman who insists she is a religious sister.

Citing the U.S. Constitution and even the Bible, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal court in Indianapolis that said jurors could decide if Patricia Ann Fuller is or isn't a sister.

Fuller, who insists she remains a Catholic sister and who still goes by Sister Joseph Therese, sued Indiana attorney Kevin McCarthy for defamation because he described her as "a fake nun." The court did not explicitly say that Fuller could not sue McCarthy for defamation, but it sent the case back to the federal court in Indianapolis with orders that neither the judge nor jury should decide religious questions. The civil case covers other matters and includes various suits and countersuits.

The Fostoria, Ohio, woman was sanctioned as a sister decades ago by the Roman Catholic Church. But one of its governing body's later withdrew its approval and declared she is no longer a sister.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Richard Posner says putting jurors in a position of possibly contradicting a religious finding by the church could have far-reaching consequences.

"Such a judgment could cause confusion, consternation, and dismay in religious circles," the 18-page opinion reads. "The harm of such a governmental intrusion into religious affairs would be irreparable."

Posner drives the point home with a reference to a biblical passage.

"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.

It cites documents from the Catholic governing body as explaining Fuller's status as a sister was nullified, in part, for her alleged "overconcern for externals and physical comfort and niceness."

Fuller has argued she is a `sister' because any lay person who takes a private vow can assume that title. The Catholic Church disagrees.

The dispute stems from the legacy of Sister Mary Ephrem, who in 1956 claimed an apparition of the Virgin Mary came to her and told her, "I am Our Lady of America," the opinion says.

Fuller later helped Ephrem found the Contemplative Sisters of the Indwelling Trinity in Fostoria, Ohio, and she assumed control of the congregation after Ephrem died.

McCarthy and another man, Albert Langsenkamp, participated in the congregation starting in 2005, but a falling out with Fuller a few years later led to battles in court.

Among the disagreements is who holds copyrights to medallions, statues and other memorabilia related to the "Our Lady of America" apparition. Messages left Wednesday seeking comment from McCarthy and Langsenkamp's attorney, Michael Swift, as well as from Fuller's attorney, Marilyn Cramer, were not returned.

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