DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA FOURTH DISTRICT DIOCESE OF PALM BEACH, INC., Petitioner, v. FATHER JOHN GALLAGHER, Respondent. No. 4D17-2579 [ May 9, 2018 ] Petition for Writ of Prohibition to the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Meenu Sasser, Judge; L.T. Case No. 50-2017-CA-000337-XXXX-MB. J. Patrick Fitzgerald and Associates, and J. Patrick Fitzgerald, Roberto Diaz, and Maura F. Jennings, and Gaebe, Mullen, Antonelli & DiMatteo, and Elaine D. Walter and Michael A. Mullen, for petitioner. Babbitt & Johnson, P.A., and Theodore Babbitt, and Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., and Philip M. Burlington and Nichole J. Segal, for respondent. LUCK, R., Associate Judge. 1 Father John Gallagher, a Catholic priest, sued the diocese in which he served, the Diocese of Palm Beach, Inc., for defamation. The diocese moved to dismiss the complaint based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which prevents civil courts from deciding matters that require adjudication of theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, and the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them. The trial court denied the dismissal motion, declining to apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine because Father Gallagher’s defamation claims could be resolved based on neutral legal principles without entangling the courts in the interpretation and 1 The Florida Supreme Court directed that this petition be reviewed and determined by a panel of judges from the Third District Court of Appeal sitting by designation as associate judges of the Fourth District Court of Appeal. application of church law, policies, and practices. We disagree, and grant the diocese’s petition for writ of prohibition, because Father Gallagher’s defamation claim, which arises out of an employment dispute between him and the diocese, cannot be resolved without the courts excessively entangling themselves in what is essentially a religious dispute. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY Father Gallagher was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church on June 21, 1992. He first served in his homeland of Northern Ireland, later immigrating to the United States. In 2000, Father Gallagher was incardinated with the Diocese of Palm Beach. Father Gallagher held the following positions with the diocese: • Sept. 1, 2000—Aug. 1, 2002: Parochial vicar at St. Anastacia Church, Ft. Pierce • Aug. 1, 2002—June 30, 2005: Parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola, Palm Beach Gardens • July 1, 2005—Sept. 30, 2009: Parochial vicar at St. Joan of Arc Church, Boca Raton • Oct. 1, 2009—July 12, 2012: Special leave to study 2 • Dec. 1, 2013—June 30, 2014: Parochial vicar, Holy Name of Jesus Church, West Palm Beach • July 1, 2014—June 30, 2015: Parochial administrator, Holy Name • July 1, 2015—present: Special leave. Father Gallagher began his association with the Holy Name of Jesus Church in December 2013 when he was assigned to that parish as parochial vicar. 3 On April 14, 2014, Father Gallagher was named parochial 2 Father Gallagher sought but was not assigned as pastor of St. Joan of Arc ...

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