Florida Court Reaffirms Church Immunity

In Mammon v. SCI Funeral Services of Florida, Inc., 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 7967 (Fla. 4th DCA May 25, 2016), the court reaffirmed Florida’s interpretation of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, a defensive doctrine which has only been an issue in a handful of appellate cases in the entire history of the State of Florida.

Plaintiff, a widow, had had her husband buried at a cemetery which promised to bury him in accordance with “Jewish burial customs and traditions.” Upon discovering that there were non-Jewish persons buried at the cemetery, and believing that other practices were not in keeping with such customs and traditions, the widow filed suit, alleging violations of the Florida Funeral Cemetery, and Consumer Services Act and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Defendant responded, arguing that the court was without subject matter jurisdiction, due to application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is rooted in First Amendment protections for religion. Specifically, it provides that courts will refrain, where possible, from settling intra-faith disputes regarding faith.

Defendant alleged that there was an ongoing dispute regarding “Jewish burial customs and traditions” and whether its practices met the standards for such customs and traditions. The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed, and stated that, to resolve the widow’s claim, the court would have to “first determine what constituted ‘Jewish burial customs and traditions.'”