Supreme Court Passes on Maryland-Based Antennae, Organist Cases

By BEN MEYERSON, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON (Feb. 20, 2008) - Two Maryland groups Tuesday were denied a chance to argue before the nation's highest court, but that doesn't mean either case is finished.

The winners are an organist who was fired soon after telling the church's pastor he was sexually abused by a choirmaster 40 years earlier, and a ham radio enthusiast whose neighbors cried foul when he started building four, 190-foot antenna towers on his property.

The organist is William Moersen, who worked at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton from 1958 to 1976 and again from 1991 until he was fired in 2002. The Archdiocese of Washington sought to have the entire issue dismissed, but the Supreme Court's denial will allow the case to proceed to trial.

The radio buff is John Evans, who bought 44 acres outside Poolesville to build four radio towers to supplement the two outside his home in Clarksburg. His neighbors, Thomas Burruss and Alan Gaunoux, sued saying the county should have notified them before the building began and that county failure constituted a breach of their right to due process.

Neither case is through yet.

Lawyers for the archdiocese and Moersen both say they're ready to continue battle in Maryland's Circuit Court. The issues in the Moersen case were never discussed in depth, as the archdiocese's attempt to invoke a "ministerial exception" preempted a full trial.

The crux of the archdiocese's case before the nation's high court claimed First Amendment protection of religion prohibits government from interfering with the hiring or firing of religious staff—a standard referred to as the "ministerial exception."

"Just as a matter of principle, logically, the first question was, 'Does this have any business being in a court at all?'" said the archdiocese's lawyer, Kevin Baine. "The next step is to go back to the Circuit Court and resolve it there."

L. Jeanette Rice, Moersen's main attorney, said she's looking forward to that battle.

"We were just fighting for the right to be in court," Rice said. "Our client will certainly be happy to have the case tried and done."

The archdiocese argued that Moersen's role as organist was integral to the church's religious functioning. Moersen said he was simply a hired hand, and that he had no interest in the Catholic religion.

The case worked its way through the Maryland court system, eventually landing in the Court of Appeals, which found that Moersen's role was "not ministerial in any sense."

The main attorney for the neighbors, James Parsons, said he was "disappointed, but not surprised" to hear that the Supreme Court had decided not to hear his clients' case, given the volume of suits it's typically presented with. The court only accepts about one in every 70 cases appealed, he guessed.

The neighbors had argued that the county should have notified the neighbors of the structures going up at 15110 Sugarland Road, and given them a fair chance to oppose them.

Parsons said the 14th Amendment prohibits the state from depriving a person of property without due process of law, and said the construction of the towers on neighboring land without being told "amounts to a deprivation of property interests without due process."

However, the Maryland Court of Appeals said in its decision that property owners don't have the right to due process regarding their neighbors' building permits.

However, Parsons said his clients are pursuing Evans on a different front. Montgomery County, he argued, used the wrong process for Evans' permits. They were filed as an accessory use, meaning they should have been related to farming, but they are not, he said.

Instead, he cited an ordinance requiring radio and television towers to get a special exception—a process that would have allowed more time for neighbors to provide input.

Evans could not be reached for comment.

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