TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ The Florida Bar on Friday dismissed a complaint filed with the state Supreme Court against the former lawyer for an Ohio teenager who had converted from Muslim to Christian. The bar had accused John Stemberger of violating its rules by making prejudicial and disparaging public statements related to his former representation of Rifqa Bary in custody proceedings. They included his accusation that an opposing lawyer was being paid by groups with terrorist ties.
The Orlando lawyer also was accused of publicly divulging confidential information he had received from Bary and claiming he was still her attorney after she no longer was a client.
Stemberger denied the bar allegations.
“Instead of championing constitutional free speech rights, bar organizations are opting to enforce political correctness,'' Stemberger said in a statement. He said bar associations in Florida and other states “are bending over backwards to accommodate members of Islam as a new protected class.''
A conservative Christian activist, Stemberger also is president of the Florida Family Policy Council and led a successful campaign put an amendment banning gay marriage in the Florida Constitution.
Bary, now an adult, had run away from her suburban Columbus, Ohio, home to Orlando in 2009. The Sri Lanka native said she was afraid her parents would harm her because of her religious conversion. Bary was returned to Ohio, where she was placed in state custody. She was released on her 18th birthday last August.
“I believe the bringing of this case was a great injustice because I would not be here without the aid of this man's counsel in my court hearing,'' Bary said in a statement issued through Stemberger's office.
She said Stemberger spent countless hours on her case and represented her without charge.
Stemberger, though, still faces a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Ohio seeking unspecified damages. It was filed by Omar Tarazi, a Hilliard, Ohio, lawyer who represented Bary's parents.
Tarazi has accused Stemberger of defaming him in national television interviews by saying he was being paid by terrorist-affiliated organizations based solely on a Facebook article and a blog.
“I believe attorneys should be held to a higher standard of professionalism,'' Tarazi said in a telephone interview. “It is a shame that the Florida Bar lacked the courage to follow through in the case.''
He pointed out the bar previously found “probable cause'' that Stemberger had violated its rules.
In a news release, Stemberger noted the bar dismissed the complaint with prejudice, meaning it cannot be filed again, a week after bar lawyers interviewed Bary. The dismissal filing does not explain why the bar decided to drop the case.