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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Who can trust parents with a child's religious education?

Wow: A county judge in an Indiana divorce case last year banned both parents from exposing their son to "non-mainstream religious beliefs and practices." Even more alarming is the judge's explanation for this egregious intrusion on parents' rights to raise their children in their own faith:

Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of the Marion Superior Court, kept the unusual provision in the couple's divorce decree last year over their fierce objections, court records show. The order does not define a mainstream religion.

Bradford refused to remove the provision after the 9-year-old boy's outraged parents, Thomas E. Jones Jr. and his ex-wife, Tammie U. Bristol, protested last fall.

Through a court spokeswoman, Bradford said Wednesday he could not discuss the pending legal dispute.

The parents' Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford's attention in a confidential report prepared by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights. Jones' son attends a local Catholic school.

"There is a discrepancy between Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones' lifestyle and the belief system adhered to by the parochial school. . . . Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones display little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon (the boy) as he ages," the bureau said in its report.

While I can imagine parents who "display little insight" into any number of childhood conundrums, I marvel at the thought that a judge would defer to a third party's belief system over the objections of a child's parents and bar them from practicing their religion with their own child. According to the father's attorney:

"Religion comes up most frequently [in divorce proceedings] when there are disputes between the parents. There are lots of cases where a mom and dad are of different faiths, and they're having a tug of war over the kids," Falk said. "This is different: Their dispute is with the judge. When the government is attempting to tell people they're not allowed to engage in non-mainstream activities, that raises concerns."

I'd say it does. ("Judge: Parents Can't Teach Pagan Beliefs," Kevin Corcoran, Indianapolis Star 5.26.05; thanks, Jason!)

Update 5.27.05: From today's update on the story:

Debate swirled in pagan religious circles locally and nationally after The Indianapolis Star reported on the case Thursday. [The father, Thomas E.] Jones, 37, said he posted messages on two Web sites Thursday in an attempt to keep pagans from sending e-mail and letters of protest to [Judge] Bradford.

"I've posted pleas for them to leave him alone," Jones said. . . .

Experts say an appellate ruling is likely to go in Jones' favor.

"Parents have a constitutional right to direct the upbringing of their children. That has been settled for nearly a century," said [Northwestern University law professor Andrew] Koppelman, an expert in constitutional law.

"This case has got to be reversed, given the lack of explanation by the judge. It would be bad enough if he had singled out Wicca, but he has phrased it in such broad terms there's an argument the child could not be allowed to attend Jewish or Muslim services."

Before the appeals court would consider constitutional issues of religious freedom, however, it's more likely to fault a decision by one of Bradford's commissioners to include the one-paragraph restriction without showing actual or potential harm to the child, said an Indiana family law attorney.

"This decision should be frightening to people of any faith, because who decides what's mainstream?" said Donna Bays, chairwoman of the Family Law Section of the Indiana State Bar Association. "I have never seen a judge put anything like that in any order involving parties who were in agreement. "

Bonus! There's a Unitarian Universalist angle to this story:

Jones said he is not trying to force religious beliefs on his 9-year-old son, who attends a local Catholic elementary school and a Unitarian church.

("Paganism Ruling Stirs Outcry," Kevin Corcoran, Indianapolis Star 5.27.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 26 May 2005 at 10:12 PM

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Suzanne Egbert:

May 28, 2005 02:41 AM | Permalink for this comment

I know all the principals in this case and have known the details for some time, but I must admit to being surprised to see all the publicity it's suddenly receiving. Not only was this in the Indianapolis paper, it was on the front page, during Indy 500 week when little that doesn't have to do with the race makes headlines. Even my conservative friends (amazing, I know, that a UU has one or two of these :)) think the judge was out of line. One wonders what he was thinking!

John Mosman:

May 31, 2005 08:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

It seems parents can often be surprised when entering divorce court. Some parents do not realize that in some states minor children remain wards of the court even though one or both parents have primary placement and legal custody. However the judge in this case clearly stepped over the line.

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