Ruling that the court does not have jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters, a Florida judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Pastor Stovall Weems and his wife, Kerri, against leaders of the 12,000-member Celebration Church in Jacksonville they allege ousted them from the church in a “coup” earlier this year.
The dismissal of the Weems’ defamation lawsuit was made last Wednesday by Florida Circuit Judge Marianne Lloyd Aho.
“Because the plaintiffs’ claims on their face as currently written require this court's involvement in ecclesiastical, doctrinal matters, neutral principles of law cannot be used to consider the issues at hand. As such, this Court DISMISSES WITHOUT PREJUDICE the plaintiffs’ complaint,” Aho wrote.
The Weemses who founded Celebration Church in 1998 and resigned as leaders in April, filed their defamation lawsuit following the release of an internal investigation commissioned by the church that painted them as abusive leaders who exploited church staff and finances until they were forced to resign.
“The single word used most frequently to describe Stovall Weems was ‘narcissist.’ Nearly every witness we interviewed used that specific word,” a 22-page report on the investigation produced by the Nelson Mullins law firm said.
The law firm was retained to conduct an investigation after the church's board of trustees voted in January to suspend the Weemses over "questionable financial practices and other pastoral issues under the Weemses’ leadership."
According to the report, the Weemses’ leadership had been “inconsistent and unbiblical" since at least 2019. Investigators allege that Stovall Weems’ leadership was “marked by rampant spiritual and emotional abuse, including manipulation, a profound sense of self-importance and selfishness, superiority and entitlement, overbearing and unreasonable demands on employees’ time, a lack of accountability or humility, and demands of absolute loyalty.”
In dismissing the Weemses defamation case, the judge pointed out that the “church autonomy doctrine, or ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, is rooted in both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the United States Constitution and ensures that the highest ecclesiastical authorities, as opposed to the secular courts, have the final say on ecclesiastical matters.”
The doctrine, she explained, “prevents civil courts from deciding matters that require adjudication of theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.”
In their lawsuit, the Weemses argued that because Celebration Church is a congregational church, as opposed to a hierarchical church, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine should not apply. Aho ruled, however, that case law does not support that position.
Celebration Church officials argued for a dismissal of the Weemses lawsuit because “even if appearing secular on their faces” their claims “are so inextricably intertwined with matters of Celebration Church's discipline, employment, and internal organization that ecclesiastical issues would necessarily need to be considered” by the court to settle their claims.
And Aho, citing case law, agreed.
“As pled, these claims would require this Court to impermissibly examine the inner workings of Celebration Church, including the church's internal financial policies and by laws, as well as the duties and actions of Pastor Weems,” she wrote. “In order to determine whether Celebration Church defamed Pastor Weems as currently alleged, this Court would need to look to the time Pastor Weems was employed by the Church to see whether he did or did not partake in the actions as alleged by the Church and whether those actions were forbidden by the Church's bylaws and other internal policies.”
“The consideration of these issues,” she said. “Would require: this Court to impermissibly entangle itself within matters of church governance and pastor qualifications.”