Judge: Parents can't teach pagan beliefs
Father appeals order in divorce decree that prevents couple from exposing son to Wicca.
By Kevin Corcoran
May 26, 2005
An Indianapolis father is appealing a Marion County judge's unusual order that prohibits him and his ex-wife from exposing their child to "non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals."
The parents practice Wicca, a contemporary pagan religion that emphasizes a balance in nature and reverence for the earth.
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.
But Jones, 37, Indianapolis, disputes the bureau's findings, saying he attended Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis as a non-Christian.
Jones has brought the case before the Indiana Court of Appeals, with help from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. They filed their request for the appeals court to strike the one-paragraph clause in January.
"This was done without either of us requesting it and at the judge's whim," said Jones, who has organized Pagan Pride Day events in Indianapolis. "It is upsetting to our son that he cannot celebrate holidays with us, including Yule, which is winter solstice, and Ostara, which is the spring equinox."
The ICLU and Jones assert the judge's order tramples on the parents' constitutional right to expose their son 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.
Bristol is not involved in the appeal and could not be reached for comment. She and Jones have joint custody, and the boy lives with the father on the Northside.
Jones and the ICLU also argue the order is so vague that it could lead to Jones being found in contempt and losing custody of his son.
"When they read the order to me, I said, 'You've got to be kidding,' " said Alisa G. Cohen, an Indianapolis attorney representing Jones. "Didn't the judge get the memo that it's not up to him what constitutes a valid religion?"
Some people have preconceived notions about Wicca, which has some rituals involving nudity but mostly would be inoffensive to children, said Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
"Wiccans use the language of witchcraft, but it has a different meaning to them," Goff said. "Their practices tend to be rather pacifistic. They tend to revolve around the old pagan holidays. There's not really a church of Wicca. Practices vary from region to region."
Even the U.S. military accommodates Wiccans and educates chaplains about their beliefs, said Lawrence W. Snyder, an associate professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University.
"The federal government has given Wiccans protection under the First Amendment," Snyder said. "Unless this judge has some very specific information about activities involving the child that are harmful, the law is not on his side."
At times, divorcing parents might battle in the courts over the religion of their children. But Kenneth J. Falk, the ICLU's legal director, said he knows of no such order issued before by an Indiana court. He said his research also did not turn up such a case nationally.
"Religion comes up most frequently 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."
Indiana law generally allows parents who are awarded physical custody of children to determine their religious training; courts step in only when the children's physical or emotional health would be endangered.
Getting the judge's religious restriction lifted should be a slam-dunk, said David Orentlicher, an Indiana University law professor and Democratic state representative from Indianapolis.
"That's blatantly unconstitutional," Orentlicher said. "Obviously, the judge can order them not to expose the child to drugs or other inappropriate conduct, but it sounds like this order was confusing or could be misconstrued."
The couple married in February 1995, and their divorce was final in February 2004.
As Wiccans, the boy's parents believe in nature-based deities and engage in worship rituals that include guided meditation that Jones says improved his son's concentration. Wicca "is an understanding that we're all connected, and respecting that," said Jones, who is a computer Web designer.
Jones said he does not consider himself a witch or practice anything resembling witchcraft.
During the divorce, he told a court official that Wiccans are not devil worshippers. And he said he does not practice a form of Wicca that involves nudity.
"I celebrate life as a duality. There's a male and female force to everything," Jones said. "I feel the Earth is a living creature. I don't believe in Satan or any creature of infinite evil."