Paganism ruling stirs outcry
A court order prohibiting a Marion County father and his ex-wife from exposing their son to "non-mainstream religious beliefs" is likely to be reversed, legal experts said Thursday.
However, publicity about the divorce case could help better educate people about Wicca, a contemporary pagan religion, said Andrew Koppelman, a Northwestern University law professor.
Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of Marion Superior Court, kept the unusual provision in Thomas E. Jones Jr. and Tammie U. Bristol's divorce decree last year over their protests, court records show. The parents are practicing Wiccans, and their divorce decree does not define a mainstream religion.
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union and Jones assert the judge's order tramples on the parents' constitutional right to expose their son, Archer, to a religion of their choice. Both say the court failed to explain how exposing the boy to Wicca's beliefs and practices would harm him.
Debate swirled in pagan religious circles locally and nationally after The Indianapolis Star reported on the case Thursday. 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 Bradford.
"I've posted pleas for them to leave him alone," Jones said.
Through a court spokeswoman, Bradford has said he cannot discuss the pending legal dispute. The Indiana Court of Appeals could rule at any time.
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 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. "
Indiana law allows the custodial parent to determine a child's religious practices unless a child's physical health would be endangered or a child's emotional health would be impaired.
She said courts typically take the child's wishes into account when determining custody for those at least 14. In this case, a temporary guardian or special advocate could have been appointed while the court investigated the effects of the boy's exposure to Wicca.
Jones brought the case to the Indiana Court of Appeals in January, with help from the ICLU. They requested the appeals court strike the one-paragraph clause.
The parents' Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford's attention in a confidential report by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights.
The Indianapolis residents married in February 1995, and their divorce was final in February 2004. Bristol and Jones have joint custody, and the boy lives with the father on the Northside.
The parents believe in nature-based deities and engage in worship rituals that include guided meditation. 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.
"He's going to make his own path, in his own time," Jones said.
Pagans encounter so many problems with the legal system that Dana Eilers, a retired attorney from Massachusetts, wrote "Pagans and the Law: Understand Your Rights." Eilers said Thursday she heard about the local case through the pagan community and couldn't believe it.
"What it looks like is the judge has just pre-empted the parents and said, 'No, this is how you're going to do it.' "