Thursday, October 16, 2008

Court Finds That Mormonism Isn't Protestantism.

In Rownak v. Rownak, 2008 WL 4491823 (Ark. App. Oct. 8), a divorcing couple agreed "that the minor children be raised in the Protestant faith," which apparently meant to them that they weren't supposed to "promot[e] another religious belief system/faith to the minor children unless both parties should consent." The court accepted this agreement, and made it part of its divorce decree.
A couple of years later, the husband started promoting Mormonism to the children. The wife asked the court to find the husband in contempt, which the court did. A week ago, the Arkansas Court of Appeals refused to disturb the contempt finding.
The specific reasoning is clouded by the father's failure to appeal the order; he instead filed a motion for clarification or modification of the order, and appealed the denial of that motion. But my sense is that the heart of the court's reasoning is that if parties made a deal, they can be held to the terms of that deal, even if the deal involves a promise not to speak or not to engage in religious conduct. "[T]he injunction about which appellant complains has for its basis a valid contract between the parties and does not violate appellant's constitutional rights. The circuit court's order merely effectuated the parties' agreement ...." (Note that the contempt citation was for violating the decree, which embodied the parties' agreement; as I read it, the courts didn't find that the religious teaching was against the children's best interests, and thus didn't rest their reasoning on the children's best interests.)
This, it seems to me, raises three separate questions:
(1) Should such contracts not to speak (whether religiously or otherwise) be enforceable in some way, whether by damages or otherwise? The court said yes in Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991), and I think that's right.
(2) Should such contracts be enforceable by court order, via contempt penalties and not just damages awards? I'm inclined to say yes as well.
(3) When should such contracts nonetheless be unenforceable on the grounds that they require courts to make theological decisions, such as whether Mormonism is included within Christianity, whether Jews for Jesus is included within Judaism, whether Reconstructionist Judaism is included within Judaism, or whether Mormonism is included within Protestantism?
I think there are substantial limits on the enforceability of such contracts. The church property cases held that courts generally can't make theological decisions, such as which claimant's views are closer to orthodox (with a small "o") Presbyterianism; and I think the logic extends also to the interpretation of contracts, wills, and trusts that call for such decisions. Nor can courts avoid this constitutional barrier by trying to figure out what the majority of members of a religion thinks (hard to do reliably, plus it assumes the conclusion of who constitutes "members of a religion," and it privileges majority denominations within a religious group over minority denominations). And courts usually can't avoid the constitutional barrier, I think, by asking what the parties intended the term to mean — the best test of a word's intent is usually the word itself, and that is the very thing that calls for theological decisionmaking.
The question then is whether such contracts are categorically unenforceable, or whether there's some exception, for instance when there's seemingly overwhelming agreement about the question. For instance, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints site expressly says that "we are not Protestants"; let's say this is largely uncontroversial among those Mormons who have an opinion on the subject. Can the court therefore conclude that it can say Mormonism is "another religious belief" than "the Protestant faith," even though it is forbidden from resolving more controversial questions? Or does the objection of even one person who expresses a different religious view — perhaps a party in this very case — create enough controversy that a secular court should refuse to enforce the parties' agreement? by Eugene Volokh.