I-TEAM: Celebration Church argues in court for dismissal of defamation suit brought by former pastors

Opposing counsel argues the suit should continue through court

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For months, Celebration Church has been in the midst of a bitter and public battle with its former pastors, and on Tuesday, a judge heard the church’s motion to dismiss a defamation suit filed by its former pastors.

The News4JAX I-TEAM has previously reported that the church hired a law firm to do an internal investigation, releasing an explosive report containing allegations of financial misconduct and spiritual and emotional abuse involving its founding Pastor Stovall Weems. Now, he and his wife, Kerri, are fighting back -- suing the church for defamation, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.

On Tuesday, the church’s attorney suggested the dispute be handled internally by the church, but attorneys for the Weemses said their suit addresses serious issues that should be handled by the court.

The church released its report on its website in April, alleging Stovall Weems engaged “in a series of improper and unauthorized financial transactions” from which he benefitted at the expense of the church and displayed leadership “marked by rampant spiritual and emotional abuse.”

I-TEAM: Celebration Church releases findings of explosive investigation into founding pastor

In court records, the Weemses call the report defamatory. They also repeatedly deny financial misconduct and say this was a “coup” staged by the church trustees to push them out.

The church hired a law firm to compile the investigative report. The firm says the report was based on interviews with more than 20 people and thousands of pages of documents.

Attorney David Wells, who is representing the Celebration Church, said in court Tuesday the report is about whether Stovall and Kerri Weems met the Biblical requirements they agreed to follow to lead the church.

“To determine whether anything in the report could be considered defamatory, putting aside the obvious First Amendment issues that you would get to, there would require the court to resolve a dispute concerning the suspension, discipline and resignation of two church founders and pastors, a dispute that necessarily involves questions of internal church discipline, faith and organization that are governed by Ecclesiastical rule, custom and law,” Wells said.

On the other side, the Weemses’ attorney, Shane Vogt, says the allegations in the report should be decided not by the church, but by the court.

“It’s hard to fathom how you could say that this case is Ecclesiastical propositions when one of the conclusions that the report makes based on the statements that we’ve sued over is that the Weemses should be referred for criminal prosecution, not Ecclesiastical prosecution, but criminal prosecution, which is tied directly to criminal laws,” Vogt said.

The decision on whether this dispute should be handled by the church or the court will ultimately be up to the judge. She said she could rule as soon as next week.

Stovall Weems posted on social media that a private investigator with FBI experience put together his own investigative report that tells Stovall Weems’ side of the story. We don’t know if it’ll be released publicly because the social media post said it’s subject to attorney-client privilege.

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I-TEAM and general assignment reporter