BOSTON (AP) — Parishioners occupying a long-closed Catholic church south of Boston had their day before the state Appeals Court on Wednesday as they sought to overturn a judge's ruling that ordered them to end their nearly 11-year, round-the-clock protest vigil.
A three-judge appeals panel heard brief arguments from both sides as dozens of parishioners and their supporters packed the courtroom. The panel is expected to issue a written decision at a later date.
In their court brief, the Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in Scituate argued that a state Superior Court judge wrongly prevented them from presenting arguments referencing church or canon law, denied them the right to a jury trial and abused his judicial discretion, among other things.
The group wants the lower court decision reversed and the case ordered for a new trial.
"This is an ecclesiastical dispute," lawyer Mary Elizabeth Carmody said Wednesday. "We believe this case was wrongfully decided."
But the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which sued to evict the protesters in March, counters that the case is a simple question of property rights and the lower court judge was right to focus solely on who legally owned the church.
"The defendants continue to argue that this is an ecclesiastical issue, which of course it is not," said William Dailey, the archdiocese's lawyer.
The protesters, in their legal brief, counter that even if the archdiocese holds the church's deed, the concept of ownership is broader in the Catholic tradition. Under canon law, they argue, parishioners are the rightful owners of church spaces.
Carmody, the group's lawyer, also noted in court Wednesday that the archdiocese promised to let the group remain in the church until it exhausted the Vatican appeals process.
The Apostolic Signatura, which the archdiocese describes as the Catholic church's "high court," denied the group's appeal in June 2014.
But protesters say they filed a further appeal with the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts at the Holy See, which they say has the right to review decrees by the Apostolic Signatura.
That process is still pending, according to Carmody, and another possible avenue for church appeal might also be available.
"The canon appeals are not really over," she told the judges. "Rome moves in centuries. These appeals have taken years. I have no clue how long they'll take."
The protest group has also not ruled out taking its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Carmody added after the hearing.
Wednesday's hearing comes after the Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini were granted a brief reprieve by an appeals court judge who ruled last month that the group could continue its vigil, pending a decision on the appeal.
The protesters have been holding a vigil all day and night in the now-deconsecrated Scituate church since 2004, when the archdiocese shuttered it as part of a major reorganization to stabilize its finances.
The Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini is the last of a number of protest groups that had organized vigils to oppose church closings across the Boston area.
This story has been corrected to show that Carmody said she had "no clue," not "no idea," how long the canon appeals will take.