Father’s advocacy of polygamy casts shadow over custody dispute
Dec. 2, 2003
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday December 3, 2003
Tracey L. Roberts isn’t trying to stop her ex-husband from pursuing his religious belief in polygamy, the activity that broke up their marriage.
But she’s dead set against him teaching their 10-year-old daughter Kaylynne about it or exposing her to it in any way.
“It’s not an organized religion _ it’s in his mind. And it’s illegal. Polygamy’s illegal everyplace and it’s illegal for a whole lot of reasons,” Roberts said Tuesday. The 37-year-old massage therapist lives in Hallam with Kaylynne and two daughters from a previous marriage.
A York County judge in May 2002 granted Roberts and Stanley M. Shepp joint custody of Kaylynne, directing that the girl continue to be raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the same order, Common Pleas Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh also prohibited Shepp from “teaching (Kaylynne) about polygamy, plural marriages, or multiple wives,” at least until she is 18.
Shepp, 39, took Linebaugh’s restriction before the state Superior Court, which upheld it. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is pending.
“Religious discussion in the home between a parent and a child has got to be the most sacred freedom-of-speech issue ever. There’s no way we can allow the government to come into our homes and interfere with that religious discussion,” said Shepp, who lives with his third wife in Red Lion, about seven miles from Hallam.
Shepp and Roberts met in 1991 at a Mormon church in York _ both had converted to the religion as adults _ and married the following year. Shepp became active in local politics, losing a 1994 bid as a Republican seeking to unseat state Rep. Stephen H. Stetler, D-York.
As Shepp’s interest in the church’s history of polygamy grew, he contacted like-minded people in Utah, where estimates are that 30,000 people live in polygamist families despite a ban on the practice in that state’s Constitution.
Roberts was upset at the situation and brought it to the attention of church elders. Eventually, the couple split, and the church excommunicated Shepp for his views. The Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890 as part of a deal that granted Utah statehood.
Shepp said he is not currently seeking another wife or wives, but hopes one day to have them. He is convinced his status in the afterlife depends on it and does not believe state law prohibits it.
About a year ago, he faxed a letter to York District Attorney Stan Rebert asking if he would prosecute a polygamist marriage that did not involve a marriage license.
“His response was that he would throw the book at me,” Shepp said.
Rebert said a bigamy prosecution would be difficult if it was “some sort of common-law marriage” that did not involve documentation, but he would decide whether to press charges on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s hard to make a hypothetical call in that type of situation without having the facts in front of you,” Rebert said.
Pennsylvania’s law against bigamy bars married people from entering into an additional marriage unless they believe the prior spouse is dead or have other reason to think the first marriage was legally ended. Violations carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Shepp’s brief before the state Supreme Court contends an informal “spiritual marriage,” lacking legal documentation, would not run afoul of the bigamy statute.
His lawyer, Dann S. Johns, wrote that he was unable to find a U.S. Supreme Court precedent directly addressing parent-child religious speech in a custody case.
Likening Shepp’s opinions on polygamy to Amish opposition to compulsory school attendance, Johns said it was a characteristic of free people to fight for personal liberty.
“Perhaps one day in this great land state discrimination against plural family life will fade, much as state discrimination against other family lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality, cohabitation of married people, etc.) has faded,” Johns wrote.
The Superior Court panel based its decision on a finding that exposing Kaylynne to polygamy posed a substantial threat to her. Polygamy often involves adolescent brides, and Roberts’ lawyer, Richard K. Konkel, said learning about polygamy from her father could put Kaylynne at risk of “child abuse and sexual abuse and whatever else. That’s what it leads to.”
“In a custody case, the best interests of the child is always paramount. That’s the first issue we have to deal with here: Is this in her best interest? And clearly it’s not. And he has no constitutional right to teach this,” Konkel said.
After the current issue is resolved, Roberts said, she plans to ask a county judge to order Kaylynne’s visits with her father be supervised by an adult. Shepp said if he loses he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Shepp v. Shepp (Roberts) Superior Court decision:
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