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Harassment by Church Not Protected

December 2, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom doesn’t protect churches from sexual harassment lawsuits by their clergy, a federal appeals court said Wednesday.

The court reinstated a former seminarian’s lawsuit against the Jesuits.

John Bollard dropped out of a seminary in Berkeley in 1996, saying he was sent pornographic cards, invited to cruise gay bars and subjected to unwanted advances by a dozen priests during his last 5 1/2 years there.

His case against the California Province of the Jesuits put the question to a federal appeals court for the first time: Are religious organizations covered by the same sexual harassment laws that govern employers and schools?

Other federal courts have rejected discrimination lawsuits by religious employees, saying churches have a constitutional right to select their ministers and interpret their own doctrines without the interference of secular courts.

But none of those rulings involved sexual harassment.

In a 3-0 ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said such a suit could be judged by the courts without interfering with religion.

``There is no danger that, by allowing this suit to proceed, we will thrust the secular courts into the constitutionally untenable position of passing judgment on questions of religious faith or doctrine,″ Judge William Fletcher wrote.

He also noted that Bollard was not seeking reinstatement, which might require court supervision, and that the Jesuits condemn sexual harassment.

Attorney Michael J. Estep, who represents one of the four priests sued along with the Jesuit order, said Wednesday, ``This is the type of dispute that should be resolved in the church system.″

Lawyers for the order and the other priests did not immediately return telephone calls Wednesday.

Bollard, 33, now an administrative employee at a Southern California college, said the ruling reaffirms that ``the church is not above the law.″

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