Byline: Rich Tucker, Times-Union staff writer
Five young men who say they were molested by their Lake City church minister turned to a higher authority for help last year.
They filed lawsuits in Duval County against not only the minister but also Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, the district AME organization and the national body that governs them. Their complaint asserts that those organizations were negligent in hiring the minister.
Today, the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee will consider a motion filed by AME lawyers to dismiss the suit, arguing that any court efforts to review the church's religious hiring practices would infringe on constitutionally protected rights. Their argument echoes others being made in a number of contentious civil suits that are rapidly finding their way to high courts in Florida and other states across the land.
"Courts are very sensitive to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment," said Joseph W. Little, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in constitutional law. "They are afraid of the slippery slope argument, that once they go nosing into the matter, there will be no ledge they can grab and then they will end up with the secular court entangled in religion."
At least three suits raising that issue besides the one against AME have been filed in Florida, two of which already are being considered by the Florida Supreme Court.
"It's a straightforward argument. We have a free-exercise clause," explained Robert Drinan, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in legal ethics and constitutional law. "We're loath to intervene in any sort of religious practices."
The suit against AME began as a criminal case against the minister, Robert James Fennell Jr. Several young boys leveled accusations of fondling against Fennell, beginning as early as 1994. As a result, 96 charges of sexual assault and battery were filed against Fennell.
Fennell did not return repeated phone calls.
But as the first criminal hearings approached, some of the youths began to recant. Assistant State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister dropped a number of the charges, and Fennell eventually was found guilty on two misdemeanor battery charges in July.
Fennell later pleaded guilty to charges connected to two other victims.
Ultimately, he received a two-year sentence, the bulk of which he had already served while waiting for his trial, Siegmeister said. He also was sentenced to four years' probation as a sex offender.
Fennell initially had been facing six counts of sexual battery on a child younger than 12, a charge that carries a mandatory life sentence. …