Woman’s discrimination claim against Catholic Church may proceed

AP, Wednesday, August 7, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. – A federal magistrate says a Hanover woman who wants to become a priest may proceed with her sex discrimination claim against the Roman Catholic Church, but he warned she is likely to lose.

Judge Magistrate James Muirhead even hinted that Susan Rockwell, who practices law in Vermont, could be penalized for filing a frivolous lawsuit because there is a clear exception to federal sex discrimination law that allows churches to choose their own ministers.

Muirhead’s job is to screen lawsuits filed by people who are not represented by lawyers to see whether the court has jurisdiction to hear their claims. If the court agrees with Muirhead’s recommendation in Rockwell’s case, a judge still could dismiss her sex discrimination complaint without a trial, based only on her legal arguments.

Rockwell, 55, filed suit in May on her own behalf, saying the church should be denied tax exempt status because it discriminates against women. She also alleged the church had violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

Her suit named the Diocese of Manchester, the Archdiocese of Boston, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti.

She said that in February 1996, she applied to Manchester Bishop Leo O’Neil for admission to study for the priesthood, but he rejected her application because the Catholic Church permits only men to be priests.

After the Pope issued an edict in 1998 threatening excommunication of anyone who rejected core church positions, including the all-male priesthood, a representative of the Manchester Diocese warned Rockwell that her vocal opposition to that policy was objectionable, she said in her lawsuit.

The Rev. Edward Arsenault, speaking for the diocese, said Tuesday that “the court saw the lack of merit in the claims which challenge the ability of the church to operate in accordance with its beliefs and teachings … I welcome the opportunity to discuss the teaching of the church and its traditions with the plaintiff is she would want to do so.”

Muirhead recommended dismissing Rockwell’s claims concerning her free speech and religious rights and the church’s tax-exempt status.

He said the First Amendment is designed to protect individuals against government abuse, not the actions of private religious organizations.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday August 8, 2002.
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