The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary v. Katy Perry

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By Matt DeSantis, Staff Writer

Religious institutions enjoy a variety of privileges in the United States, guaranteed and defended by the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. These privileges range from their tax exempt status to the right to follow their own codes of law — to the extent they do not conflict with general laws.[1][2] While these laws do not affect criminal court decisions, civil courts are obliged to defer to the decisions of religious tribunals.[3]

Every religious organization has its own code that it abides by, and the Roman Catholic Church follows the Code of Canon Law, most recently promulgated in 1983.[4] Among other things, the Code governs the interactions between clergy and the public, the rights and responsibilities of practicing Catholics, and the management of Church property.[5] Rather than belonging to those who live and work in the churches and convents — the priests and nuns — all Church property belongs to the diocese where it is located.[6] Bishops and archbishops have authority over the diocese or archdiocese to which they are appointed; they are effectively the stewards of all property that belongs to the diocese.[7] A bishop must consent to any sale of Church property in his diocese and must ultimately obtain approval for the sale by the Pope in Rome whenever the amount in question is more than $7.5 million.[8]

In recent years, this Canon law quirk has been associated with a very unlikely public figure: Katy Perry. Since late 2014, the singer has been embroiled in a legal battle with the sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a bid to purchase their convent as a residence for herself.[9] The population of the Los Angeles convent has slowly declined over the years, and the remaining five sisters have been relocated by the Church. Realizing that the convent would no longer be in use, the nuns negotiated the purchase of the property by Dana Hollister, a local restaurant owner.[10] The property, however, had simultaneously been offered to Katy Perry by the Archbishop Jose Gomez for a slightly smaller amount in cash.[11] A legal battle ensued regarding who had the right to sell the property and which sale would be valid.[12]

Prior to litigation, the nuns had already petitioned Rome for approval of their sale to Hollister, but the matter had yet to be decided. They proceeded with the execution of the deed, but the Archbishop contested the sale, stating they never had the sale approved by Rome.[13] Deferring to Canon law, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that only the archbishop had the authority to sell the property, and, without Church approval, the deed was invalid.[14] Nevertheless, there are legal issues still remaining that the nuns have disputed.

The ruling by the court that the sale to Hollister was rejected in favor of the sale to Perry rests upon a missive from the Catholic Church in Rome.[15] While normally a decision by the Church would resolve the dispute, all official proclamations from Rome are written in Latin and must be translated before presentation to the court.[16] The nuns allege a mistranslation of the document and believe that the true translation would reveal that the matter was still under consideration. The California courts have yet to decide whether or not the matter requires further litigation, but the final decision will be dictated by Rome.[17]

 

Sources


[1] 26 U.S.C.A. § 501, I.R.C. § 501

[2] Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U. S. 696 (1976).

[3] Id.

[4] Code of Canon Law in Code of Canon Law: Latin English Edition (Washington D.C. : Canon Law Society  of America, 1999).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. cc. 532, 1276.

[7] Id. cc. 1273-1289.

[8] Id. c. 1292.

[9] Pearson, Michael, Katy Perry closer to convent purchase, but hurdles remain, CNN, April 14, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/14/entertainment/katy-perry-convent-purchase-feat/.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] McKay, Hollie, Nuns roar back at Katy Perry, claiming mistranslation of Vatican decree allowing purchase of convent, Fox News, April 27, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2016/04/27/nuns-roar-back-at-katy-perry-claiming-mistranslation-vatican-decree-allowing-purchase-convent.html.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

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