Over a decade ago, a nun who resided at a convent in upstate New York complained to
her superiors about alleged sexual misconduct by one of the convent’s priests. The ruling bishops
directed the nun to vacate the convent property. When she refused to do so, an ecclesiastical
court disciplined her by making her ineligible to wear religious garb and to receive communion
for a two-year period.
After the nun continued to complain of alleged sexual harassment by the resident priest,
an ecclesiastical court permanently defrocked her and, on that basis, disallowed her continued
residency at the convent.
The convent then asked a state court in New York to evict the nun. It also brought
another action against the nun, seeking to recover damages for her use and occupancy of the
The actions were consolidated, and the New York court dismissed the consolidated action
against the nun.
The convent appealed, and the appellate court now has affirmed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
In its decision, the appellate court explained that the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution forbids civil courts from interfering in or determining religious disputes, “because
there is substantial danger that the state will become entangled in essentially religious
controversies or intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrines or beliefs.”
The appellate court added that a court may properly preside over a dispute involving a religious
body “only when the dispute may be resolved utilizing neutral principles of law.”
In this case, the appellate court reasoned, the proceedings brought by the convent were
“inextricably intertwined” with the determinations of the ecclesiastical court, particularly its
determination defrocking the nun and ordering her to vacate the convent.
Therefore, the appellate court reasoned, the consolidated action involved review of an
ecclesiastical determination “that may not be resolved by resort to neutral principles of law.”
Moreover, the appellate court continued, the action did not involve a “purely religious
determination” requiring it to accept the actions of the ecclesiastical court as final and binding. In
the appellate court’s opinion, the resolution of the consolidated action necessarily involved an
assessment of the propriety of the nun’s defrockment in light of her allegations of sexual
misconduct against a priest. Therefore, the appellate court concluded, the convent’s claims were
“nonjusticiable,” as any such resolution of them would involve what the appellate court said
would be “an impermissible inquiry into religious doctrine or practice.”
Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the convent’s
actions against the nun and denied the convent’s request for court intervention to effect its
ejectment of the nun from the convent.
Nelson Madden Black Comment
Nelson Madden Black LLP partners Barry Black and Jonathan Nelson recently explored
the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in greater depth in an article for the New York Law Journal.
See, “When Can State Courts Decide Religious Disputes?”