Federal judge rejects preacher’s suit against TV station

Orlando Bethel, involved in altercation at funeral, told to take complaint to state court

A judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit that Loxley preacher Orlando Bethel and his wife filed against WPMI-TV15 and two of its on-air employees, ruling that the Bethels’ allegations didn’t meet the threshold for a federal case.

U.S. District Judge William Steele left the Bethels with the option of refiling the lawsuit, but he indicated their complaints would be better addressed in state court.

It was unclear whether Steele’s ruling, made on procedural grounds, would affect any of the four other federal lawsuits the couple has filed in Mobile since March. All of the lawsuits were written by the Bethels themselves, and all of them have to do with Orlando Bethel’s insistence on appearing in places where others apparently don’t want him.

“The Bethels would be well-advised to seek the advice of legal counsel before proceeding further,” Steele wrote in concluding his eight-page order issued Tuesday.

Orlando Bethel — and to a lesser extent his wife Glynis — have been in and out of the news for two years, ever since Bethel told mourners at his wife’s uncle’s funeral that the deceased was in hell and they were headed there too. Members of the congregation proceeded to pummel him.

The funeral fracas and Bethel’s subsequent evangelizing in public spots led to a series of minor criminal charges against him and others in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Pensacola.

In March, the couple sued WPMI, the local NBC affiliate, along with anchor Peter Albrecht and anchoreporter Mike Rush. They claimed the station defamed them during various newscasts, a charge that station management denied.

Steele’s order did not touch on the merits of the Bethels’ claims.

Glynis Bethel said she and her husband would contact WPMI about a possible settlement before they move the lawsuit into state court. She said they would not consult a lawyer.

“As far as us, it’s just a matter of going into the computer and using a template,” she said.

She said her husband and other area preachers resented the treatment they have received from local authorities and some media outlets.

“They’re trying to make it seem like we’re from Waco or Jim Jones or something,” she said.

Rush did not return a telephone message Thursday from the Mobile Register. Albrecht deferred comment to WPMI general manager Sharon Moloney, who did not respond to the Register’s inquiries via phone and e-mail. A woman who would identify herself only as “Irene,” a public relations employee with Clear Channel Communications, WPMI’s parent company, called the Register to say company policy prohibits commenting on litigation.

In May, the Bethels sued the city of Montgomery and various city officials, alleging that police there harassed them when they tried to evangelize on city streets. The Bethels wrote in that lawsuit they “have strict religious beliefs to share their Christian faith by verbal means and by written means, including holding up signs with their religious messages, which may be considered by others as being controversial.”

Lawyers for the defendants have asked a judge to transfer the case to Montgomery. Glynis Bethel said she and her husband had no problem with that.

On June 10, the Bethels filed a similar lawsuit against the city of Loxley, although they hadn’t formally served city officials with the lawsuit as of late Thursday. On the same day, the Bethels sued some of Glynis Bethel’s relatives over the fight at the funeral. That lawsuit is pending before Steele.

Eight days later, the Bethels filed a separate suit against Loxley over Orlando Bethel’s arrest last Easter outside a prominent church. Lawyers for the city filed pleadings Wednesday arguing that the Bethels used the wrong statutes in that lawsuit. Steele has yet to rule on that matter.

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