JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A judge heard arguments Thursday between attorneys for Celebration Church and its former pastors amid an ongoing legal battle that involves allegations of defamation. After a nearly two-hour hearing, Judge Marianne Aho said she would take the arguments under advisement.
Stovall and Kerri Weems filed a lawsuit against Celebration Church and its attorney, accusing them of defamation when they published the results of an internal investigation that outlined allegations of fraud, emotional and spiritual abuse, narcissistic behavior and greed against Stovall Weems. The couple called it a “sham investigation” and said it caused irreparable harm to their reputation.
Lee Wedekind is part of Nelson Mullins, the firm that conducted the investigation and compiled the report. Wedekind and his attorney argue the court does not have jurisdiction in the defamation case because it’s an ecclesiastical matter.
Full report: Internal investigation
“The case should be dismissed. There’s no need for an evidentiary hearing. There’s no need to provide for discovery. Your honor has the ability to read the allegations that they wrote in their own words,” said David Wells, attorney for Wedekind.
An attorney for the Weemses argued that the court does have jurisdiction and wants the judge to rule in the case.
“Nothing here involves church doctrine. The courts are free to examine and evaluate the inner workings of church, their governing documents, their bylaws and what transpired within the church under the abstention doctrine. That’s perfectly within the court’s jurisdiction,” said Shane Vogt, attorney for the Weemses.
Vogt also argued that the Weemses were no longer members of the church when the statements about them were published.
“The audience of the statements was the general public and the timing of the statements was after they were no longer members and that all circles back to the fact they have a Constitutional right of freedom of their own religion to leave membership of the church and once they were no longer members of the church, this ceased to be an ecclesiastical dispute as it related to acts the church took subsequent to that time,” said Vogt.
Another issue brought up in court Thursday regarded the home where Stovall and Kerri Weems reside on Black Hammock Island. Celebration Church purchased the property from Stovall Weems and the church remains the current owner. The church has issued eviction notices to the couple, since Stovall Weems was suspended and later resigned from his positions. The Weemses argue the home was part of a retirement package and they are allowed to be there.
“The eviction is really just asking the court to make a commonsense determination that the church owns the property,” said Wedekind. “The church has decided the Weemses should no longer be there. The Weemses need to leave. That does not require any analysis of theological controversy or ecclesiastical government. It’s really a matter of simply applying the Florida statutes we walked through here.”
Court filings said the Weemses “refuse to vacate” and the church and its attorneys are asking the court to step in.
“The days of self-help of going down there with torches and pitchforks to run the pastor out of the parsonage after he’s either resigned or been fired are long gone,” said Wells. “You only have one way of doing that and that’s to ask the court to issue an order of eviction.”
Judge Aho will take the arguments under advisement and another hearing will be set at a later date.
Stovall and Kerri Weems also have a related case in the federal court system. They filed a federal complaint against the Association of Related Churches (ARC), one of the largest church planting organizations in the country, and three other pastors, two of whom were former overseers of Celebration Church. It says they were part of the effort to oust the Weemses from the church they founded.
“This case arises out of a continuing unlawful conspiracy masterminded by the defendants to protect and expand their church growth business interests and endeavors and the substantial income they generate by destroying Plaintiffs and eliminating them as perceived threats and competitors, which included engineering a takeover at Celebration Church of Jacksonville, Inc. to allow defendants to effectively gain control over its operations and substantial assets, cover up numerous criminal and tortious acts committed in the process, and frame the Weemses for financial crimes they never committed,” the filing reads.
The complaint said the defendants used ARC’s significant influence and power as a vehicle to “facilitate and conceal their nefarious scheme.”
“We are saddened that Stovall Weems, former pastor of Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, filed a lawsuit against ARC that included unfounded and inaccurate accusations. We are confident, however, that the truth will ultimately prevail. We respect the judicial process and look forward to addressing these matters in the courtroom,” The Association of Related Churches said in a statement to The Christian Post.