Friday, May 22, 2009

Arizona Judge Prohibits Mormonism


Is it proper for a judge to prohibit a father from taking his children to the Mormon Church? I found myself asking this question after I read an article written by Sarah Fenske of the Phoenix New Times.

Fenske gives some background on the case. “Two years ago, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Budoff decreed that Richard Franco could not take his children to a Mormon church.”

“Never mind that Franco had been a Mormon his whole life. Or that on weekends when he had custody of his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, the extended Franco clan attended Sunday services together. Nope, Judge budoff ordered in writing that the Franco kids’ ‘only religious training shall be in the Catholic faith and that they not be taken to an LDs church or LDS church training.”

Judge “Budoff’s decision was upheld by the appellate court in December. More recently, this spring, the Arizona Supreme Court took a pass, refusing to give Franco so much as a hearing.”

Fenske continues “reading the court file, it’s clear that Judge Budoff found Franco abrasive, arrogant, and annoying. But Budoff never found Franco to be an unfit parent. The children’s parenting coordinator, in fact, described the kids as ‘thriving, intelligent, and articulate’ and said that they ‘remain bonded to both their parents,’ despite a difficult divorce.”

Mike McCormack, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children offered that “without a finding that he (Franco) was unfit, he was informed—make that, flat-out told—‘You can’t expose these children to your religious beliefs. That’s over the top. Do we want that micromanagement from our judiciary? From our perspective, this was a real over-reach. This is an area where judges are getting ahead of themselves, to say that children will or will not be raised a particular way…The religious training question should be left in the hands of the parents.”

Fenske raises a valid question: (religious) “plurality can make things rough once the kids reach school age. But it can also be awesome. How to better learn tolerance than to have relatives with whom you disagree? How better to sort out how you really feel about God than understanding that good people see Him in different ways?” I agree with Fenske that some of the best learning experiences I’ve had in life have come through sharing ideas with people who have different beliefs then I have. Also, growing up in Maricopa County these children are going to be exposed to Mormonism whether it’s through their father, class-mates, or friends.

Below I highlight the pertinent part of Judge Budoff’s ruling. (Read the Entire Ruling Here)

2. The Decree provided that the parties would share joint custody of the children and contained a parenting time schedule which provided that Mother would be the primary residential parent and that Father would have regularly scheduled parenting time with the children including alternating weekends.

7. Extensive testimony was presented at the September 6, 2007, hearing from the parties and others relative to the parties’ communication and cooperation with each other, the circumstances surrounding the incidences of April 13, May 27 and July 11, 2007, and the matter of the children’s religious upbringing, and from the testimony presented the following findings are made:

a. Father has been aggressive, abusive and intimidating to Mother in phone conversations, e-mails and in conference with the Parenting Coordinator.

b. Father has been rude and intimidating to Daughter’s dance director and teacher.

c. Father is controlling and dictatorial with Mother over parenting schedule issues as he does not discuss issues with her and merely dictates to her as to how issues should be resolved immediately after she refuses to accede to his wishes.

g. Father has failed to return the children on time from his parenting time periods. The Court considers this behavior to be an example of passive-aggressive behavior towards Mother which adds to the parties’ inability to trust each other and to work together with regard to co-parenting.

h. Notwithstanding that the Decree provides that the children would be raised in the Catholic faith and only attend the Mormon church if they desired to do so, it is clear that Father has intimidated and coerced the children to attend Mormon church services when they are in his care although Father has agreed that the children be raised in the Catholic religion and the children appear to be committed to this religion, Father apparently believes that regardless of the children’s wishes he should be able to take the children to his church and expose them to his religion when they are in his care. Parenting Coordinator, Dr. Waldman, believes that this is not generally in the children’s best interest. Waldman opined that the children should not be forced to choose between religions and must be directed towards one, and only one religion, during their childhood.

k. The children’s Best Interest Attorney reports that the children have a good relationship with and enjoy their time with both parents except for those times when Father forces them to go to the Mormon church.

Based upon the foregoing and having considered the relevant factors of A.R.S. 25-403 and 25-403.01, the Court finds that continuation of joint legal custody for the parents is not in the children’s best interest.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED awarding Mother sole legal custody of the children with full final decision-making authority relative to all educational, medical and religious issues.

(the Mother) is most supportive of the children’s Catholic upbringing to which the parties previously agreed and which they affirmed in open Court

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED in accordance with the recommendations of Parenting Coordinator, Dr. Larry Waldman, and to avoid further confusion and conflict in the children’s lives, that their only religious training shall be in the Catholic faith and that they not be taken to an LDS church or LDS church training. In making this decision relative to the religious issue, a decision that this Court has, in the past, avoided when at all possible, the Court determines that the conflict between the parents over this issue and the need for the children to have consistency in this area requires that such an order be entered in their best interest.

Under ARS 25-410(A)- the parent with custody chooses the children’s religion but that is completely different than a total ban on Mormonism. When this Father has his children over the weekend is he supposed to leave them home alone while he goes to church or is he not supposed to attend church either?

Could this Court ordered ban on Mormonism be seen as an endorsement of Catholicism? Would that be a violation of the First Amendment?

Even if the situation were the same I can’t see Judge Budoff, ruling the same way if the father were a member of a different religion; he would not have banned this father from sharing his beliefs with them.