Massachusetts' top court on Wednesday ruled that parishioners who have staged a decade-long vigil aimed at stopping the closure of their Roman Catholic church are trespassing in violation of state laws.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church is the last of a half-dozen Boston-area churches that parishioners occupied in opposition to a 2004 decision by the Archdiocese of Boston to close some 70 churches, as the clergy sex abuse scandal began to take a heavy toll on church finances.
A group of parishioners has occupied the 30-acre (12 hectares) property in waterfront Scituate, south of Boston, 24 hours a day, seven days a week since that time.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday upheld a June ruling by a state judge that found the parishioners were violating state laws and ordered an end to their long occupation.
"While we acknowledge the defendants' heartfelt beliefs that they are entitled to remain on the premises as an exercise of their freedom of religion, the judge's conclusion that the defendants are trespassers is supported by the evidence."
The court cited an earlier decision in a related case that said a landowner is entitled to be protected by injunction against continuing trespasses.
Parishioners had argued that since their contributions helped to build and maintain the church, which was constructed in the 1960s, that they hold an ownership interest in the property.
"We were told this was our church," Jon Rogers, a leader of the parishioners, said in July when the court heard arguments on the case.
But three-judge panel found that parishioners had no standing to continue to occupy the property.
"Four defendants testified that they remained at the church despite repeatedly being asked by the (archdiocese) to 'move on,'" the judges wrote in Wednesday's decision.
The archdiocese called on Wednesday for an end to the long occupation.
"We appreciate the court having taken the time to review this matter and issue its ruling," said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "We ask the Friends of St. Frances to respect that decision and conclude the vigil."
Representatives of the parishioners did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The other groups fighting parish closures have since abandoned their vigils or lost in the courts.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott)