ORLANDO — Prominent social conservative activist John Stemberger has made a late and dramatic entry into the already volatile case of the Ohio teen who ran away from her Muslim family saying she feared she would be killed for converting to Christianity.
In a petition to the juvenile court which will decide later today whether Rifqa Bary, 17, should return to Ohio, Stemberger, who says he is her attorney, sought to block her reunification with her family.
"The child is in imminent threat of harm not only from her parents but also from the extreme radical Muslim community in her hometown of Columbus," he wrote in the petition.
It continued with allegations of her family's mental, physical and sexual abuse. Stemberger said Rifqa should be kept from her parents.
The petition mentioned the mosque that Rifqa's parents go to and called it "the largest cell of Al Qaeda operatives" in the Columbus area. It listed the address of the Bary home in Ohio.
Files in juvenile court cases typically are private, but Stemberger's filing became public Thursday night, showing up as a link on anti-Muslim Web sites like WorldNetDaily, The Silent Majority and Atlas Shrugs.
Rifqa Bary went missing on July 19 from her home near Columbus, Ohio, and showed up on Aug. 10 on local TV in Orlando in the arms of an evangelical preacher.
"This is not just some threat!" she wailed. "This is reality, this is truth, this is reality!"
She has been in temporary foster care since then waiting for the hearing set for this afternoon. For many in the evangelical Christian community this is more than a dependency case — it's a life-and-death battle in an ongoing culture war.
Craig McCarthy, the court-appointed attorney representing Rifqa's mother and a specialist in juvenile dependency cases, was aghast at Stemberger's petition.
Thursday he filed a motion in response, arguing that the court should disregard Stemberger's petition and disallow his representation of Rifqa and his appearance on Friday.
McCarthy's motion challenges Stemberger's standing as Rifqa's attorney. Stemberger, the motion said, wasn't there at the hearing on Aug. 10 when she was put in temporary foster care. She's been in undisclosed temporary foster care ever since. She is already being represented by a court-appointed guardian ad litem. How did Stemberger get appropriate access to her to enter into an attorney-client relationship? And how did she okay it? She is, after all, a minor.
McCarthy questioned the appropriateness of publicizing the Barys' home address by allowing the motion to be linked to on the Web sites.
"It is reasonable to believe," McCarthy wrote in his motion, "that Attorney Stemberger or his agents have encouraged and enabled the public publishing of the document …"
"My main point is," McCarthy said on the phone with the Times around 11 p.m. Thursday night, "that he's publishing information about the family on the Web. That's the thing that really set me off. I would never do that.
"If she gets reunited with her parents, nobody needs to know where she lives," he said, "and if she doesn't get reunited, nobody needs to know where they live."
He said he was going to call the Florida Bar ethics hot line on Friday. Friday morning he did.
He said he had talked to Stemberger twice earlier Thursday evening.
The first time was to let Stemberger know that he had just filed a motion in response to his petition.
The second time, he said, was when Stemberger said he'd take down the link to the document if McCarthy withdrew his motion.
McCarthy said no.
While McCarthy was on the phone to the Times a different phone rang. It was Stemberger.
The conversation on McCarthy's end could be overheard:
"I appreciate that," McCarthy said. "I do."
The links to the petition from Stemberger's Web site were dead.
McCarthy's motion, though, he said, was still a go.
Stemberger is the president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council. Orlando magazine last month called him one of the 50 most powerful people in the city. He's a leader in Florida's anti-gay marriage movement and doesn't believe in teaching evolution "as scientific fact."
After midnight Thursday night, Stemberger spoke with the Times.
"I represent her," he said. "She's got a right to counsel."
He explained that he didn't enter into a contract with a minor. He's doing this for free.
He said he has met with Rifqa once, in person, along with the supervising guardian ad litem, but wouldn't say whether he's talked to her more by phone or other forms of electronic communication.
As for McCarthy's motion?
"He's going to embarrass himself," Stemberger said. "He needs to withdraw the motion or I'm going to embarrass him in court in front of a national TV audience."
Stemberger was asked about the allegations of the abuse. Where do those come from?
"Most of the things in this complaint," he said, "come directly from Rifqa."
And the allegations about the mosque and "the extreme radical Muslim community" and "the Al Qaeda operatives" in Columbus?
"It's public knowledge," Stemberger said. "You can go online and check it out."
Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.