Justices throw out seizure of church assets in Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a court order to seize assets belonging to the Roman Catholic archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to pay pension benefits for Catholic school teachers.

The justices said in an unsigned opinion that a Puerto Rico court lacked the authority to issue an order to seize $4.7 million of the archdiocese’s assets to cover the pension benefits.

The high-court ruling does not end the fight over the benefits, which arose amid the long-running recession that led Puerto Rico’s government to declare bankruptcy and Congress to create an oversight board to help the U.S. territory deal with more than $100 billion in debts and public pension obligations.

In the midst of the crisis, active and retired employees of the Catholic schools sued over claims that the archdiocese had effectively eliminated pension benefits.

The justices’ ruling Monday turned on a technical legal matter — the case was briefly in the federal court system and the local court seizure order was issued before the case was returned to Puerto Rico courts.

The larger undecided issue in the case is whether the archdiocese has religious protections under the Constitution that would prevent a court from interfering with its internal operations.