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Husband Of Breast-Feeding Driver Wants To Be Tried • Tuesday June 24, 2003

Pennsylvania Man Cites Religious Beliefs

RAVENNA, Ohio — A woman accused of endangering her baby by breast-feeding while driving on the Ohio Turnpike should not be the defendant, her husband said. He wants to be prosecuted instead, citing a religious belief.

A trucker called 911 May 8 to report that he had seen the woman driving her car with a baby in her lap. Catherine Nicole Donkers, 29, of suburban Pittsburgh, is to go on trial Aug. 6 on misdemeanor charges of child endangering, failure to comply with the order of a police officer and several other driving infractions. A conviction for misdemeanor child endangering carries maximum penalties of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

She could have had the original police charges, driving without a license, obstructing official business and violating the child safety-seat law, reduced to a single guilty plea to driving under suspension, according to court records. She then could have closed her case by posting a $100 fine. But her husband, Brad L. Barnhill, 46, said religious beliefs put him in charge of his wife’s actions.

“I’m responsible for what she does, and no one can punish her except me,” he said. “If they refuse to allow me the free exercise of my religion, then we’re going to appeal this all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and they’re not going to be able to try her before then.”

Barnhill said his faith is rooted in The First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, an organization founded in the late 1990s. Barnhill said he is a minister in the fellowship with 650 followers.

Asked why his wife did not stop to nurse the child, Barnhill said she didn’t want to turn “a five-hour trip to Michigan into a seven-hour trip.”

Sean P. Scahill, the assistant prosecutor in charge of the case, said he could not comment on any aspect of it.

Lt. Chris Butts, a commander at the State Highway Patrol’s post in Hiram, where the incident originally was investigated, said Catherine Donkers initially refused to give the responding trooper any identification but finally turned over an ID card.

Butts also said Donkers drove for three miles after the trooper turned on his siren and overhead lights and told her to stop. Donkers said in a court document she was afraid because she alleged that police officers assaulted her on two prior occasions. She said Barnhill “has directed me that if I am ever stopped by a law enforcement officer, that I should go to the nearest public place with witnesses where I would have a reasonable assurance of my safety and that of our infant child.”

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