Appeals court blocks lawsuit against church


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Pointing to a need to keep courts out of internal religious disputes, an appeals court Monday scuttled a lawsuit over the dismissal of a former deacon from a Gainesville church.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal was at least the second such decision in recent months by state appellate courts. In May, a South Florida appeals court ruled against a priest who alleged that he had been defamed by the Diocese of Palm Beach.

The priest, John Gallagher, has taken his case to the Florida Supreme Court, which has not decided whether to hear it.

Monday’s ruling came in an Alachua County case filed by Gerald Mobley against Springhill Missionary Baptist Church of Gainesville. The church terminated Mobley as a member because of what it described in a letter as “heretical statements,” according to a copy of the letter included in court documents. Mobley said in the documents he had been a church deacon.

After a circuit judge dismissed an initial version of the lawsuit, Mobley filed a revised version that alleged slander, libel, malice and defamation. A judge declined to dismiss the revised lawsuit, leading the church to go to the appeals court.

A three-judge panel of the Tallahassee-based court said Monday the circuit judge should not move forward with the lawsuit because of a legal concept known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” which prevents civil courts from getting involved in such things as theological controversies, church management and disciplinary issues.

“We conclude that resolving any claims in Mobley’s … amended complaint would require a court to intrude into church doctrine in violation of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” said Monday’s ruling by judges Harvey Jay, Allen Winsor and M. Kemmerly Thomas. “Therefore, the doctrine prevents litigation of this dispute and the lower court lacks jurisdiction to proceed.”

The ruling in the Mobley case was based on the same reasoning as the May ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal in the Gallagher case.

The Gallagher lawsuit came after series of events that started with allegations in early 2015 that another priest at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in West Palm Beach had shown child pornography to a 14-year-old boy. The other priest, Joseph Palimattom, was arrested, pleaded guilty and was ultimately deported to his native India, according to the May appeals-court ruling.

After the incident involving the other priest, Gallagher was not offered the job of pastor of Holy Name and was reassigned to another parish, a transfer he did not accept. He alleged that the diocese tried to cover up the child-pornography incident and that he was reassigned for not going along.

In response, diocese officials made critical public comments about Gallagher, which spurred him to file the defamation lawsuit. The appeals court blocked the lawsuit, saying judges cannot become entangled in church administrative decisions.