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New Hampshire Nuns Will Drop Jobs Lawsuit Against Diocese

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Four nuns in New Hampshire who sued their bishop, their superintendent, and the diocesan school board after being fired from their teaching jobs last year will be reinstated as part of an out-of-court settlement announced May 19.

The four nuns--Sisters Honora Reardon, Catherine Colliton, Justine Colliton, and Mary Rita Furlong--have agreed to apply for new teaching positions at a school other than the one from which they were fired in February 1982--the Sacred Heart School in Hampton.

In return, the Catholic Diocese of Manchester has agreed to help the three teachers and one principal find new jobs.

The agreement ends a lengthy and highly publicized court battle that had gone as far as the New Hampshire Supreme Court and was, prior to the settlement, scheduled for a further hearing at Rockingham County Superior Court last week.

As part of the settlement, the nuns have agreed to drop their demand for a public hearing on their firing and to abandon their breach-of-contract suit against Bishop Odore J. Gendron and the diocesan education officials.

The diocese has agreed to revise its contract language to avoid similar disputes in the future.

In a joint statement, both sides reaffirmed their respect for and religious commitment to each other.

The settlement was first discussed among lawyers as they prepared for the scheduled hearing. Then, at the invitation of Bishop Gendron, both sides met on May 4 to discuss further the possibility of a settlement.

The nuns, all members of the Sisters of Mercy order, are the first American nuns to have taken their bishop to court.

The nuns were notified in February 1982 that their teaching contracts would not be renewed for the next year. Bishop Gendron publicly supported this decision in a letter to a Manchester, N.H., newspaper.

In an unsigned diocesan memorandum, the nuns had been accused of being uncooperative with school officials and "cliquish," said their counsel, John H. McEachern.

The nuns said they were dismissed based on insubstantial evidence and denied due process under the law and under their contract with the parochial school board. They filed suit against the bishop and the diocesan education officials, asking the court for a declaratory judgment of breach-of-contract.

A New Hampshire superior-court judge said that to consider the claims against the bishop and the diocesan superintendent--both church officials--would violate the First Amendment and he dismissed the suit.

However, the New Hampshire Supreme Court in December 1982 ruled that the suit belonged in civil court and told the lower court to reconsider the matter.

"The court said that the dispute could be interpreted by the civil court under the 'neutral-principles-of-law' doctrine," Mr. McEachern said.

This doctrine, he said, holds that courts can determine the nondoctrinal issues in disputes arising out of church controversies by applying well-established principles of law in a "neutral" manner that neither advances nor inhibits the free exercise of religion.

The doctrine was outlined in a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case called Jones v. Wolf, he said, which involved a dispute about ownership of a church in Georgia.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court's decision marks "the first time that the principles announced in Jones v. Wolf were ap-plied to a teaching situation," Mr. McEachern said.

"This was a major case in terms of establishing where the line is between church and state," he said.

The major result of the case, he said, was the decision that civil courts have jurisdiction to decide nondoctrinal issues arising in a parochial-school context.

The case is called Reardon v. Lemoyne.

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