December 01, 1999 04:55pm
US Court: Jesuit Sex Harassment Case Can Go Ahead
(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) -- A U.S. federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that a former Catholic seminarian's effort to sue his Jesuit superiors for sexual harassment can go forward, a decision which begins to define the scope of religious groups' exceptions to federal law.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that John Bollard's case against the California Province of the Jesuits could proceed because religious organizations should be subject to the same sexual harassment laws that cover the rest of society.
Bollard filed suit against the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, alleging that between 1990-1996 his superiors sent him pornographic material, made unwelcome sexual advances and engaged him in inappropriate and unwelcome sexual discussions.
Bollard's lawsuit, which sought an apology and $1 million in compensation, was dismissed last year by a federal judge, who said it constituted government interference in religious autonomy. But the appeals court overturned that decision, ruling that religious organizations were not immune to federal sexual harassment laws even in their internal affairs.
"Taken as a whole, we conclude that the procedural entanglement between church and state that will result from allowing Bollard to pursue his claim is no greater that that attendant on any other civil suit a private litigant might pursue against a church," the court's ruling said..
In the past federal courts have refused to allow clergy to sue churches for harassment or discrimination, saying court interference in religious decisions would violate the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.