The Indiana Court of Appeals has invalidated a county judge's order that barred divorcing Wiccan parents from exposing their only child to their spiritual practices.
In early 2004, Marion County Superior Court Chief Judge Cale J. Bradford granted a divorce to Thomas E. Jones Jr. and Tammie U. Bristol. The order directed the Indianapolis residents "to take such steps as are needed to shelter [the child] from involvement and observation of these non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals."
Bradford was alerted to the Pagan beliefs of Jones and Bristol by a report from the state's Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which noted that the then-nine-year-old child attended a Catholic school. The report declared that the parents displayed "little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon (the boy) as he ages."
During the divorce hearing, Judge Bradford's questioning of the couple on their spiritual beliefs and practices revealed the judge's utter misunderstanding of the Wiccan faith and his indifference to religious liberty.
"All right, while the two of you are free to engage in any kind of behaviors you want to that are lawful, or that you don't get caught at, I suppose, where you've got a child involved, that freedom can be somewhat limited," Bradford said, according to the proceeding's record. "First of all I want to get some information and I'll start with you, sir, from your religion, and how exactly that is practiced and what implication that has on the child."
While Jones was attempting to describe a Wiccan ritual, Bradford interrupted with the remark, "[P]eople might think that you worship Satan." According to the record, Jones retorted, "I can't worship something if I don't believe in it."
Following that hearing, Bradford issued the divorce decree containing the order that both Jones and Bristol shelter their child from their spiritual practices. Wicca is a Pagan belief system that centers on nature. Both parents were incensed and filed a motion asking the judge to remove the order. Bradford denied their motion in November 2004.
The parents, represented by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, then asked the Court of Appeals of Indiana to reverse Bradford's action.
A three-judge panel unanimously did so on Aug. 17. At the outset of the 8-page opinion, Judge Patricia A. Riley, citing state and federal court precedent, noted that parents "have a constitutionally recognized fundamental right to control the upbringing, education, and religious training of their children."
However, the appeals court did not reverse Bradford's decree on constitutional principle. Instead, Riley pointed to part of Indiana's domestic law that the parent with custody, in this case Jones, "may determine the child's upbringing, including the child's education, health care, and religion training."
The law limits the custodial parent's power to determine those factors only if the court agrees with an argument from the noncustodial parent that the child's physical or mental health "would be significantly impaired" by the custodian's decisions. Additionally that law allows for both parents to offer a written agreement for the court's approval on the child's upbringing.
In ruling in Jones v. Jones, the Indiana appeals court noted that the parents did not submit a document calling on the trial court to limit Jones' custodial authority.
"In fact, Mother, whom the Decree named as the noncustodial parent, is also a practicing Wiccan and joined in the motion" to nullify Judge Bradford's order.
The appeals court then concluded that Bradford lacked authority to curtail Jones' custodial powers because the judge had no proof that the child would be harmed physically or mentally by exposure to Wiccan practices.
Judge Bradford was way off base when he demanded that Jones and Bristol keep their child from partaking in Wiccan rituals. It is a fundamental right, protected by the U.S. Constitution and many state laws, for parents to rear their children without unreasonable interference by government. Giving parents orders on religious matters, which is what Bradford did, was clearly unreasonable. The Indiana Court of Appeals was right to correct Bradford's glaring error.
As the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Associated Press, judges cannot substitute their religious judgment for that of parents.
"This is an absurd result," Lynn said in regards to Bradford's decree, "because in the eyes of the law being a Pagan should be no different from being a Presbyterian."