Federal judge throws out negligence claims against Catholic Church in Denver

Monday, July 20, 1998

A federal judge in Colorado has dismissed several negligence claims against the Archdiocese of Denver and its archbishop, concluding that the First Amendment bars the court from delving into the internal operations of the Roman Catholic Church.


John Ayon, 33, an attorney in San Diego, filed suit last year against the archdiocese, claiming a priest had sexually abused him between 1981 and 1984. Ayon alleges in his suit that the Rev. Marshall Gourley, a Roman Catholic priest at a Denver church, first began making inappropriate sexual comments to him when he approached Gourley in 1980 for counseling regarding his father's death. Ayon alleged he did not realize the harm done to him by Gourley until he began treatment in 1997. Ayon asked the court to find the priest and the archdiocese liable for civil wrongs and award him damages.


Gourley and the archdiocese, however, responded by asking the court to dismiss the suit on several grounds. In particular the church argued that both the establishment and the free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment bar the judiciary from interfering with its autonomy.


U.S. District Judge Daniel Sparr last week agreed with the church's lawyers and dumped the suit, which charged the Catholic diocese with negligent hiring, supervision and continued employment as well as outrageous conduct.


“Like the majority of the cases cited, this Court finds that consideration of the hiring policies of the Archdiocese Defendants would inevitably require examination of church policy and doctrine,” Sparr wrote late last week. “The choice of individuals to serve as ministers is one of the most fundamental rights belonging to a religious institution. It is one of the most important exercises of a church's freedom from government control. For this Court to insert itself into the process by which priests are chosen would substantially burden these Defendants' free exercise of a crucial power to control the future of the church and therefore constitute interference with the practice of their religion.”


Sparr added that even trying to find out whether civil wrongs had occurred would violate the separation of church and state. “The application of even general tort law principles to church procedures on the choice of priests would require an inquiry into present practices with an intent to pass on their reasonableness,” Sparr wrote. “Such court examination and oversight of internal church policies would constitute an encroachment on the church's religious functions.”


Joyce Seelen, an attorney for Ayon, said she would ask the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Sparr's ruling.


“It makes sense that religious institutions should be protected from government interference with their religious doctrine and practices,” Seelen said. “Protecting religious institutions that protect ministers who abuse parishioners, however, does not make sense.”


Seelen said that Sparr's ruling was “adverse to Colorado Supreme Court rulings,” as well as to federal court precedent.


She pointed to two Colorado high court rulings that found the religious-liberty clauses did not protect religious institutions from liability for such actions. In 1993, the state's high court ruled in Moses v. Diocese of Colorado that no First Amendment defense could be offered to a claim of negligent hiring, continued employment or supervision of clergy.


Sparr, however, dismissed state case law, saying the “fact the Colorado state courts have taken an extremely expansive view of the claims allowed against religious organizations is not even particularly persuasive in light of the analysis by federal courts on the issue.”


In addition to state cases, Seelen cited a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling as proof that no First Amendment issue existed. In Employment Div., v. Smith, the high court ruled that two Native Americans did not have a free exercise of religion claim against Oregon officials who denied them unemployment compensation after they were fired for using peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The Native Americans said they used the drugs for sacramental purposes. In denying their free-exercise claim, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that the First Amendment does not mean “that an individual's beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.”


But Sparr said Smith was not applicable to this situation because Ayon's claims against the church were monetary and not criminal in nature.


“Plaintiff's claims rely on general tort liability theories, which do not fit the description of 'valid and neutral laws of general applicability,'” Sparr wrote. “The law at issue in Smith was a straightforward prohibition on the possession of certain specified controlled substances.”


Sam Ventola, one of the attorneys for the archdiocese, said that the Colorado courts had misinterpreted Smith, not the district judge.


“The district judge chose not follow the Colorado courts because they did not obey the Smith decision,” Ventola said. “The Colorado courts read Smith to bar any First Amendment defense to any government regulation that was not specifically targeted to religious conduct. This reading of Smith is obviously in error, because Smith itself makes clear that religious freedom defenses still apply (1) to a religious organization's decisions regarding how it will be governed and who will serve as clergy, and (2) to regulation that involves case-by-case consideration of whether the conduct is, 'reasonable' or with 'good cause.'”


Ventola praised the district court for protecting the church's autonomy and for enforcing the First Amendment. “Courts cannot be involved in evaluating who should serve as a member of the church's clergy,” Ventola said.


Gourley stepped down as priest at the Denver church last year after being named in the suit.