Shannon Carr wanted to honor her husband after he died in an automobile accident in August 2009. So the Commiskey resident purchased a headstone to have placed at St. Joseph Parish Cemetery, where Jason Carr is buried.

It's the same cemetery where their son is buried.

However, the Catholic Church said no.

The church said the headstone didn't meet its regulations.

His wife has challenged the church's denial by filing a lawsuit.

At issue is the appropriateness of a $9,600 black, granite headstone shaped like a sofa. The headstone was purchased June 10, 2010, to mark the grave of Jason Carr in the Four Corners area south of Hayden in Jennings County, according to the lawsuit.

Dispute over regulations

The Rev. Jonathan P. Meyer, the church's priest, notified Shaw Monuments in Vernon that the headstone did not meet the cemetery's rules and regulations and, therefore, was not permitted to be placed in the historic graveyard, according to Shannon Carr's affidavit.

However, Carr contends in the lawsuit that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis Properties Inc., which owns the cemetery, failed to produce any rules or regulations from the time the plots were purchased in 2000 to when she first attempted to have the monument installed in 2010.

Her affidavit says that rules and regulations were not adopted by the church until July 23, 2011.

Carr is asking the court to issue a permanent injunction against the archdiocese from preventing or interfering with having the monument placed on her husband's burial plot. She also is seeking an unspecified amount to compensate her for costs, disbursements, attorney fees, extreme hardship and emotional stress, according to the lawsuit.

Meyer said that while the rules were formalized after she purchased the headstone, they were known before that.

"Prior to that, the cemetery dealt with matters on a case-by-case basis," Meyer said. "They were later formalized, but there was always a governing body."

Meyer stated in a Jan. 24 affidavit that photographs of the monument were shown to the St. Joseph Parish Council on Apr. 27, 2010, six weeks before the monument was purchased.

He said a decision was made at that time that the monument "was not acceptable as it was of a secular nature and did not conform as a monument in a Catholic cemetery under Canon Law."

The priest further stated that he followed the council's instruction to inform Carr of the decision.

"They told her not to move forward with the purchasing of the monument, but she went ahead anyway," Meyer said. "We have consistently communicated the same message prior to the purchase and after the purchase. We did not think a granite couch was an appropriate monument in our historic cemetery."

In a response to Carr's claims, the archdiocese said in an affidavit that various cemetery restrictions, rules and regulations have existed at the parish since the graveyard was established in 1907. The archdiocese asked for a summary judgment in its favor.

Archdiocese attorney John S. Mercer stated in a court memorandum that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the courts from taking indirect control over the conduct of the affairs of the Church. Therefore, he said Carr's lawsuit "is beyond the bounds of this court's subject matter jurisdiction."

The case has been transferred from Jennings County to Bartholomew County.

Court records show Carr requested Dec. 6 to have the case transferred, the same day the lawsuit was filed in Jennings Circuit Court. The case now is in Bartholomew Circuit Court.

The case will be presided over by Special Judge K. Mark Loyd of Johnson County.

Emotional issue

Meyer said claims by Jennings County residents that his church has not treated the Carr family with Christian love and compassion are unfounded.

"We provided the family funeral rites, prepared a funeral meal and offered family members individual counseling after the services," Meyer said. "We were with them the entire way until this matter came up."

The pressure the church has experienced to allow the monument to be erected illustrates a fundamental flaw with today's society, Meyer said.

"Our culture breaks all the rules to make people feel good," Meyer said. "Faithful Christians know rules and regulations are set up, so there can be good for everyone."

Shannon Carr has chosen not to talk to the media about the case, said her father-in-law, Henry Carr.

He said the matter has created bitterness.

"I haven't been back to (St. Joseph) church and have asked that I not be buried there along with my son," Henry Carr said. "I'm told the controversy is splitting the church apart, tearing it in half. But I guess that's what has to be done."

Shannon Carr's aunt, Beverly Vogel, said the subject is seldom discussed by her fellow St. Joseph parishioners, partly due to church activities that leave little time for after-service socialization.

But Vogel also believes the topic is deliberately avoided in order to prevent potentially heated arguments.

Vogel and her husband, Charles, have two sons who died in separate accidents and are buried in the church cemetery. While she believes Shannon Carr should have a right to erect her monument, she also credits the St. Joseph congregation for avoiding those arguments.

"That's the way it should be," Vogel said. "People always say they know what they would do if they were in a situation like Shannon. But you really don't know until you've been through it."

About the Catholic Church rule

In his court affidavit, the Rev. Jonathan Meyer of St. Joseph Catholic Church, south of Hayden, cited this church law, or canon, as the reason for denying in the church cemetery a sofa-shaped headstone, adorned with images of NASCAR, the Indianapolis Colts, a deer and a dog:

"Only those things which serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, and religion are to be admitted into a sacred place; anything that is not in accord with the holiness of the place is forbidden."

 - Canon 1210