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At a time when the Roman Catholic Church is under attack in several high-profile cases involving sexual misconduct by priests, the Florida Supreme Court has dealt it yet another setback. On Thursday, the high court ruled that religious institutions cannot use the First Amendment to avoid liability in lawsuits involving sexual charges against clergy. The justices asserted that principle in handing down two significant rulings that addressed the balance between religious freedom and public protection. In both opinions, decided 6-1 and authored by Justice Barbara Pariente, the court rejected the argument that a secular court should not be allowed to adjudicate such claims. The church had argued that the First Amendment prohibits the government from intervening in the internal affairs of churches and religious organizations. In the first case, two women sued a priest and the Catholic Church, claiming they had been molested by the associate pastor of the parish they attended. In the second case, a Lake Worth, Fla., woman sued the Episcopal Church, alleging that she had been sexually abused by her minister. Both were negligent hiring and supervision lawsuits. While the high court recognized that the First Amendment provides for separation of church and state, “conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society,” Pariente wrote in one of two opinions. Justice Major B. Harding issued the lone dissent. He agreed with his colleagues that the First Amendment does not shield religious institutions against all vicarious liability. But he contended that a secular court should not be permitted to intrude on the internal affairs of the church. The rulings are significant in light of the recent spate of sex scandals involving the Catholic Church and its priests. Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell of the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., resigned recently after admitting that he molested a teen-ager at a Missouri seminary in the 1970s. In another highly publicized case, former Boston priest John Geoghan is serving a nine- to 10-year prison sentence for groping a boy and has been accused by 130 people of molesting them as children during his decades as a clergyman. May Cain, a partner at Cain & Snihur in Miami, said she hopes Thursday’s rulings will force the Catholic Church to reconsider its position asserting a First Amendment protection from lawsuits. She, with her partner, William Snihur, represented two of the alleged sexual abuse victims in the case against the Catholic Church. “We hope, in light of the recent developments with the church, that they will stop trying to victimize our clients and do what is right and just,” Cain said. Cain represents two women, identified only as Jane Doe I and Jane Doe II, who filed suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in 1998 against the Archdiocese of Miami, the Rev. Jan Malicki, and St. David Catholic Church in Davie, Fla., where Malicki was associate pastor. The plaintiffs claimed that between 1994 and 1997, Malicki “fondled, molested, touched, abused and sexually assaulted” the two, one of whom was a minor at the time. The suit alleged negligent hiring and supervision by the church and the archdiocese. A separate criminal investigation by the Broward County State Attorney’s office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement against Malicki ended without charges being brought against him, Cain said. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge David Tobin granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case with prejudice, concluding that the First Amendment barred consideration of the women’s claims. But the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami overturned the ruling, and the Florida Supreme Court upheld the appellate decision Thursday. Miami appellate lawyer Robert Glazier, in an amicus brief filed in both cases on behalf of the Miami Shores Presbyterian Church, argued that such negligent hiring and supervision lawsuits intrude into core constitutionally protected areas. “For 125 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has said the court should not become involved in the inner workings of religious institutions,” Glazier said in an interview. Attorneys for St. David’s Catholic Church did not return calls for comment. The spokeswoman for the archdiocese in Miami declined to comment. In upholding Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, the state supreme court noted it was joining a majority of state and federal jurisdictions that have found no First Amendment protection under similar circumstances. The justices noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has not resolved the issue of whether the First Amendment protects a religious institution from liability when a church employee “engages in tortious conduct against a third party” in situations involving sexual assault and battery. In the second negligent hiring and supervision case ruled on by the Florida Supreme Court Thursday, a Lake Worth woman sued her minister, William Dunbar Evans III, the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Lake Worth, the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida and Bishop Calvin O. Schofield Jr. Identified only as Jane Doe, the woman claimed that she and Evans became romantically involved while he was providing marriage counseling to her. Doe alleged that the church and bishop had been aware of prior incidents involving sexual misconduct by Evans during counseling but did nothing about it. Palm Beach Circuit Judge Moses Baker Jr. granted the church’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the First Amendment barred consideration of her claims. The case was appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, which, unlike the 3rd District Court, agreed with the trial court’s assessment and upheld the dismissal, which the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned. David Rutherford, a partner at Renzulli & Rutherford in New York who represented the Diocese of Southeast Florida, said he had not yet read the ruling and declined to comment. Randy Ellison, a Boca Raton, Fla., lawyer who represented the plaintiff in her appeal, said the ruling sends the message that any time a minister engages in a romantic relationship with anyone he is counseling in Florida, the church is going to have potential liability. “When you injure someone, you have to pay the consequences,” Ellison said. The concept appears to worry the Florida Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, who expressed concern that the rulings might be too broad and could financially burden religious institutions by forcing them to defend claims for “undefined and unlimited tortious conduct.” Justice Peggy Quince disagreed with Wells. In her concurring opinion with the rest of the court she wrote that she “failed to see how placing religious organizations on the same playing field as secular institutions for the purposes of tort liability will result in a severe financial burden for these organizations.” Appellate lawyer Glazier said the supreme court ruling strikes at the heart of what a religious institution is. “The plaintiffs’ claim is that the religious institutions were negligent in selecting their spiritual leader,” Glazier said. “Their claim is that they should have chosen someone else. That inescapably constitutes second-guessing of a religious institution’s choice of a leader.”

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