In an excellent illustration of why the courts should steer clear of matters religious, a Tennessee Court of Appeals recently sent a case back to district court for criminal proceedings against a mother for having her children baptized in Independent Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the PCA. The problem, per the courts, was that the mother had violated a dissolution decree that ordered
“major decisions” regarding “religious upbringing” should be made jointly. However, “[i]n the event of a dispute” concerning such decisions, the parties agreed to submit the dispute “to a mutually agreed upon parenting mediator.”
The father, whose personal belief is credobaptist, brought civil and criminal contempt of court charges against the mother for not seeking his consent to baptize the children.
Before we go any further I need to interject what might have been the best way for the courts to handle this matter. For assistance I call upon a memory of old-school judge, now retired, who I will call Judge Wright. One of my more vivid memories of Judge Wright was when he beckoned me into a courthouse office, leaned back, put his boots up on his desk, lit a cigarette two feet in front of a NO SMOKING sign, and, interspersed with various casual profanities, gave me some helpful advice about my practice and career. Well, Judge Wright would have called the Tennesse attorneys into his chambers before trial. And he would have said something like “Just in case ther’e any *&%$# confusion in anyone’s mind, I’m not the Pope [pausing to look both attorneys in the eye until they nod in agreement] . . . and I’m not listening to any testimony about baptism.” Turning to the father’s attorney, he would continue “and what the *%$# is the matter with your client anyway? He wants to send his kids’ mother to jail? How is that good for the children? You go back and tell your client he’s not going to win in this court. He can save money on legal fees and put it into a college fund.”
But apparently there was no Judge Wright in the Tennesse trial court, so they heard the matter and found the mother in civil contempt of court, dismissing the criminal charge. The Court of Appeals reversed the finding of civil contempt and sent the case back to trial court for a criminal contempt proceeding. The Court of Appeal’s reasoning is plausible in its analysis of civil and criminal contempt law, and its decision might be sound if it was not centered on a religious act.
But that’s a big “if.” One of the problems with courts dabbling in religion is their competence to do so. The big misstep was the initial order for joint religious upbringing and ordering the parties to see a mediator for their religious disputes. A mediator most typically sits down with parties and, depending on the facts and the law, persuades the parties to meet somewhere between their initial demands. But how do you meet somewhere between paedobaptism and credobaptism? You could say the same about any number of religious doctrines and practices. The very idea that Christian convictions can be a subject of compromise between separated parents or be mediated by a third party is, itself, an assumption of indifference to religious distinctives, and that indifference is being imposed by the courts.
Maybe the Court of Appeals silently thinks there will be no chance of a criminal conviction when the matter is heard again. It did reverse the $10,000.00 in attorney fees assessed against the mother. But, as it stands, the courts of Tennessee are imposing their religious indifference under threat of incarceration, and that’s not the proper role of a court.