HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A father may teach his young daughter about his religious belief in polygamy despite his ex-wife’s objections, the Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court said Thursday.
The 5-1 decision by the state’s highest court said Stanley M. Shepp has a constitutional right to express his beliefs about plural marriages and multiple wives even though bigamy is illegal. Shepp considers himself a fundamentalist Mormon, though the Mormon church officially renounces polygamy.
“Where, as in the instant matter, there is no finding that discussing such matters constitutes a grave threat of harm to the child, there is insufficient basis for the court to infringe on a parent’s constitutionally protected right to speak to a child about religion as he or she sees fit,” Justice Sandra Schultz Newman wrote.
The girl’s mother, Tracey L. Roberts, testified that Shepp’s interest in polygamy broke up their marriage, and expressed concern that he may introduce the girl to men in preparation for marriage at age 13, according to the court opinion.
Roberts and Shepp have joint legal custody of the girl, who is now 13.
A county judge had prohibited Shepp from teaching the child about his polygamist beliefs — at least until she turned 18 — and that decision was upheld by the state Superior Court.
Newman wrote that the state’s interest in enforcing the anti-bigamy law “is not an interest of the ‘highest order'” that would trump a parent’s right to tell a child about deeply held religious beliefs.
Neither Roberts nor Shepp appeared to have listed phone numbers, and their respective attorneys did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment Thursday.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy in 1890 as part of a deal to grant Utah statehood, and the church now excommunicates those who practice or advocate it. But some people who describe themselves as fundamentalist Mormons continue to believe in polygamy, and an estimated 30,000 in the West practice it.
Excerpt from the ruling:
By their very nature, decisions involving child custody must focus on the character and conduct of the individual parents and children involved. Accordingly, there may be instances where restricting a parent from teaching a child about a sincere religious belief involving illegal conduct is appropriate. However, we emphasize that the illegality of the proposed conduct on its own is not sufficient to warrant the restriction. Where, as in the instant matter, there is no finding that discussing such matters constitutes a grave threat of harm to the child, there is insufficient basis for the court to infringe on a parent’s constitutionally protected right to speak to a child about religion as he or she sees fit.
For these reasons, we conclude that a court may prohibit a parent from advocating religious beliefs, which, if acted upon, would constitute a crime. However, pursuant to Yoder, it may do so only where it is established that advocating the prohibited conduct would jeopardize the physical or mental health or safety of the child, or have a potential for significant social burdens. Because such harm was not established in this case, there was no constitutional basis for the state’s intrusion in the form of the trial court’s Order placing a prohibition on Father’s speech. That being the case, the second facet of the strict scrutiny test — whether the trial court’s Order was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling end — was not implicated. Accordingly, we reverse the Order of the Superior Court.