Puerto Rico Schools Case | Cases | First Liberty

First Liberty represents two Catholic schools in Puerto Rico—Academia del Perpetuo Socorro and Academia San José. Both schools originated as parochial schools associated with their respective Catholic parishes, although Academia del Perpetuo Socorro later incorporated independently.

For many years, both schools voluntarily participated in a pension fund for teachers. The schools agreed to contribute a set percentage of their payroll each year, and teachers were not asked to contribute. The fund initially consisted of eighty-three contributing schools throughout Puerto Rico, but over the years that number eventually dropped to forty-three. Due to the resulting financial hardship, the fund ultimately was unable to continue making pension payments and ceased distributions in 2016.

As a result, former employees of various Catholic schools brought suit against a number of parties, including the two schools we represent, as well as a nonexistent entity they labeled the “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico.” The former employees argued that all Catholic-affiliated organizations in Puerto Rico should be held responsible for providing preliminary relief. The courts ultimately granted the preliminary relief, and on appeal, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s determination that individual Catholic churches, schools, and other “dependencies” were “merely indivisible fragments of the legal personality that the Catholic church has,” and thus did not possess legal personalities of their own. Instead, the court deemed all Catholic entities in Puerto Rico jointly liable for claims against the nonexistent “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico.”

In a nutshell, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court denied the legal existence of schools that have legally existed for decades, and directed how Catholic churches in Puerto Rico govern themselves. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has applied the First Amendment to prevent courts from meddling in how churches organize themselves. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s decision flouts this longstanding constitutional rule protecting church autonomy.

“If a court can tell a church or school how to operate, it’s only a matter of time until government is telling churches what to believe,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, Chief Counsel, and CEO of First Liberty.

In January 2019, the Archdiocese of San Juan, along with four other Puerto Rico Catholic dioceses, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico that overrides the long-standing structure of Catholic churches and schools.

That’s when First Liberty was called. In February, attorneys with First Liberty Institute filed a brief with the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of the two Catholic schools responding in support of the petition for certiorari.

Shackelford added, “We are asking for the U.S. Supreme Court to simply apply the clear purpose of the First Amendment and more than 100 years of its own precedent. The Justices should restore the freedom of churches and religious schools in Puerto Rico to operate free of government interference.”

News Release
For Immediate Release: 2.24.20
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

U.S. Supreme Court Vacates Puerto Rico Court Decision that Threatened Church, Religious Freedom
First Liberty Institute argued on behalf of religious schools in support of writ of Certiorari in case where court interfered with church autonomy, governance

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it has vacated a decision by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court that overrides the long-standing structure of Catholic churches and schools. The Justices then sent the case back to the lower court for further review.  On behalf of two Catholic schools, First Liberty Institute urged the Court to hear the petition filed by the Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“Our clients are pleased that the court vacated the Puerto Rico court’s ruling that jeopardized their ability to operate without government interference,” said Lea Patterson, Counsel to First Liberty Institute. “If a court can dictate a church’s operating structure, it’s only a matter of time until government tells churches what they can believe. The Supreme Court’s decision is an important step towards protecting religious liberty in Puerto Rico.”

First Liberty represents two parochial schools in Puerto Rico.  In 2016, former employees of various Catholic schools brought suit against a number of Catholic entities, including the two schools.  On appeal, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision finding that individual Catholic churches and schools don’t exist as independent, legal entities, despite one of the schools, Academia del Perpetuo Socorro, holding its own corporate certificate since 1968.  Instead, the court deemed all Catholic entities in Puerto Rico jointly liable for claims against the “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico,” an entity that doesn’t exist.

In its brief urging the Court to review the case, First Liberty argued, “By assigning legal personality to an entity that does not exist within the Catholic Church’s polity while dissolving the legal personalities of entities that do exist within that structure, the decision below destroys the hierarchical polity governing Catholic churches and other Catholic entities throughout Puerto Rico.”

The Justices concluded that the trial court did not have jurisdiction because it entered its original order while the federal district court was considering whether to take up the case.  Justices Thomas and Alito added, “As the Solicitor General notes, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment at a minimum demands that all jurisdictions use neutral rules in determining whether particular entities that are associated in some way with a religious body may be held responsible for debts incurred by other associated entities.”

The case is Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, et al. v. Yalí Acevedo Feliciano, Sonia Arroyo Velázquez, Elsie Alvarado Rivera, et al. (Supreme Court docket number 18-921).

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.


News Release – 2.15.19

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