Rifqa Bary, a Muslim girl whose case became an international sensation after she converted to Christianity and ran away from her Ohio home, now is speaking out on behalf of her attorney John Stemberger, who is fighting a $10 million lawsuit and could face disciplinary action from the Florida Bar Association as well.
Stemberger is a well-respected Orlando attorney who also is president and general counsel of the nonprofit Florida Family Policy Council. The council, which is the state’s most influential pro-family group, was founded by Focus on the Family, though the organization today is separate.
He tells Newsmax that his case is an example of political correctness run amok.
“This whole incident has confirmed to me that Islam has become a new protected class in our society, and that the institutions of society are bending over backwards to accommodate them,” Stemberger says.
Last week, he released an affidavit filed in connection with the bar association trial. The lawsuit is being tried in Ohio, and the bar association case will take place in Florida.
The affidavit is the first public statement Bary has made on her case since turning 18. In it, she states that her life was threatened and says Stemberger “played a major role in my eventual safety.” Stemberger “behaved in a very professional and ethical manner during the entire time he represented me and the time I have known him,” she says.
However, her sworn statements about Omar Tarazi, the Ohio attorney who represented her parents as they tried to regain authority over her, were quite different.
Bary stated that Tarazi “conducted himself unprofessionally and harmed my ability to reunite myself with my parents in a number of ways.”
Tarazi’s response to Newsmax last week: “Rifqa’s affidavit is factually inaccurate. It says to me that she continues to be used by John Stemberger. If she wants to reconcile with her family, the doors are always open. She can call them any time and they miss her very much.”
Bary’s tribulations began in 2009, when her father learned from her Facebook page that she had become a Christian. For three years, she had kept her conversion secret for fear of reprisals.
Bary ran away from home in late 2009 following a confrontation with her father. She later told Florida authorities that she believed her life was in danger because of her decision to leave the Muslim faith and become a Christian.
According to Stemberger, Bary’s family threatened to repatriate her to her native land of Sri Lanka, an island nation just southeast of India in the Bay of Bengal. The per-capita income there is less than $5,000 a year.
When Bary’s family began a legal action to have her returned to their custody, her case soon became an international cause célèbre.
Stemberger offered to defend Bary on a pro-bono basis, and he made several television appearances on her behalf. He and other attorneys eventually were successful in helping her to be declared a dependent of the state of Ohio. When she turned 18 in August, she was released from the state’s custody. She is a legal U.S. resident and will be able to apply for U.S. citizenship in about five years.
Stemberger tells Newsmax that Bary has been living at an undisclosed location, avoiding the media spotlight, and is studying to enter the ministry.
Although Bary’s problems may be behind her, it seems Stemberger’s legal problems are just beginning. Although he never sought nor received compensation for the case, its aftermath threatens to have devastating consequences for him, and possibly for his professional livelihood.
In September 2010, Tarazi filed a $10 million federal lawsuit alleging that Stemberger and a blogger made remarks that damaged his reputation. He also filed a complaint that has led to a full-blown bar trial to determine whether Stemberger should be punished. Tarazi tells Newsmax he must limit his remarks, because he expects to be a witness in that trial.
According to Stemberger, Tarazi’s defamation suit against him stems from the last 30 seconds of an appearance he made on Fox & Friends.
During that interview, Stemberger apparently did not mention Tarazi by name. But he did state that Bary’s parents had hired “lawyers who are Muslims that had ties with CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] and the Islamic mosque.”
The FBI maintained a cooperative relationship with CAIR until January 2009, when it severed ties because of CAIR’s being named, along with several other organizations, an unindicted co-conspirator as part of a lengthy investigation of charities that allegedly funneled donations to the terrorist organization Hamas. In October 2010, a federal appeals judge overruled that co-conspirator designation, however. CAIR stated it had been a victim of Islamophobic persecution.
Tarazi, who says he worked on the Rifqa Bary case pro bono, maintains that several statements damaged his reputation.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, Tarazi’s lawsuit claims Stemberger “falsely said that Tarazi was being paid by an organization with ties to terrorists and that, essentially, Tarazi was not a qualified attorney.”
Tarazi says his lawsuit also alleges there was a conspiracy between Stemberger and the defendant who is a blogger to defame his reputation, an assertion Stemberger rejects.
Tarazi also tells Newsmax that he feels he was forced to file the lawsuit in order to clear his name “so that that’s not the first thing people find when they search my name, whether it’s a client or prospective job in the future, or a background check, or whatnot.”
“The problem is, he’s saying things that I didn’t say,” Stemberger tells Newsmax. “What he’s doing is, he’s paraphrasing and he’s interpreting, instead of quoting me. If you look at the quote, it’s fairly harmless.”
Stemberger has been forced to hire a legal team in Ohio to represent him in the federal lawsuit, as well as an attorney in Florida who is defending him in the bar action that Tarazi filed. The bar complaint reportedly alleges that Stemberger disparaged Muslims, a charge he denies.
“I made it clear there are millions of Muslims in the country that are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. And there’s also the radicals,” he tells Newsmax. “The former need to be protected, the latter need to be exposed. I was very clear on the record in writing about the distinction . . . I don’t remember disparaging or humiliating anyone.”
The complaint also states that Stemberger presented himself as Bary’s attorney when he no longer represented her. But Stemberger tells Newsmax that he continues to represent Bary to this day, in matters unrelated to the custody matters occurring in Ohio.
Stemberger estimates the two cases have cost him $12,000 so far, and the eventual expense easily could exceed $50,000, he says.
Stemberger is asking for assistance for his legal defense. A fund has been established to help Stemberger defend himself, at StembergerDefense.com.
The video of Stemberger's Fox & Friends interview is posted in the site’s “Questions” section, which explains the two cases in detail.
“Would you please help my friend and lawyer John Stemberger?” Bary states in an endorsement on StembergerDefense.com. “He defended me at no cost and helped me gain my freedom and is now being attacked by the Muslim lawyer who opposed me in court. Thank you for supporting me. Would you now also help and support John?”
Others who voice support for Stemberger on the site include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, historian David Barton of WallBuilders, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Stemberger says he has a small practice and spends most of his time running a nonprofit advocacy organization that protects families. He tells Newsmax that the legal actions against him are examples of “lawfare” — harassment filings that punish lawyers who take up controversial issues.
Stemberger also warns that the actions against him could have a “chilling effect” on attorneys taking pro-bono causes in the future.
“More importantly,” Stemberger says, “it discourages a lawyer from dealing with Islam and really confronting it. Most pro-bono work is pretty innocuous, but this is pretty serious culture-war, pro-bono stuff. So yeah, it would have a chilling effect on lawyers in this regard.”
The defamation lawsuit is scheduled to be heard next year in Ohio federal court, but Stemberger believes it probably won’t get under way until 2013.
For more information on this case, go to StembergerDefense.com.
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