A Maryville woman who went to court on Aug. 14 for a child custody hearing says she was persecuted because of her religious beliefs at the hands of the Blount County judicial system.
According to Jo Anne White, what was supposed to be a standard child custody hearing turned into an almost hourlong “Bible study” in the courtroom in spite of the repeated protests of her attorney, Kevin W. Shepherd.
After a detailed discussion of her religious beliefs — documented in court reporter transcripts obtained by The Daily Times — and a brief recess to chambers, Blount County Circuit Court Judge W. Dale Young awarded temporary custody of White’s two children to her ex-husband. The custody will be reviewed again in Circuit Court on Dec. 11.
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While Young questioned White about one specific aspect of her religion, attorney Craig Garrett, who represented White’s ex-husband, asked numerous probing questions about her faith. Of the 65 pages of court transcripts reviewed by The Daily Times, 41 pages deal directly with White’s religious beliefs.
“We were discussing specific Scriptures and the details of end-times prophesy,” White said. “My attorney kept protesting, but the judge kept it going for almost an hour.
“At one point, I told the judge, ‘I didn’t write the Bible — so why are we discussing this?’
“He just wouldn’t stop, and I thought I would go to jail if I didn’t respond to his questions — so I went along with it even though I knew they were inappropriate questions.
“We talked about my religion for so long that I wasn’t even allowed to bring my witnesses to the stand.”
White is a Seventh-day Adventist who married her now ex-husband 17 years ago in a Seventh-day Adventist Church. With the exception of its observance of Saturday, the “seventh day” of the week, as the Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists also have beliefs that are similar to most mainstream Protestant churches.
The description “adventist” is based on the belief that a second coming of Christ is near. Seventh-day derives from the contention that the Bible requires observing the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, Saturday. The denomination is traceable to the preaching of William Miller, a Baptist layman who said the Book of Daniel revealed that the end of the world would occur in the mid-1840s.
According to the church’s Web site, there are currently 14.3 million Seventh-day Adventists who attend more than 60,200 Adventist churches worldwide. The denomination operates 22 churches within 50 miles of Maryville.
While judges in most states are allowed to investigate religion in custody cases, they are not allowed to base decisions on religious beliefs unless there is proof that the children are endangered by the religious practices.
Garrett said, “I did get on her about her religion because she’s so over the top.
“My purpose was to show her fanatical characteristics — but the judge’s decision about custody was not based on religion.”
When asked if White’s children were ever endangered because of her religious beliefs, Garrett said, “No, they were never endangered because of it — just aggravated and harassed.”
Calls from The Daily Times to Young’s office and home were not returned.
Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and expert on both child custody and religion in the courtroom, said, “A judge can’t say ‘this religion isn’t good for the children’ — you must have evidence.
“You have to be able to demonstrate that it isn’t in the best interest of the child.
“I think it’s inadvisable to investigate someone’s religion in depth in the courtroom.
“This is not the kind of behavior we want to see from judges, but it doesn’t necessarily constitute grounds for reversal.”
While transcripts of the court proceedings do not state why the judge awarded temporary custody to White’s ex-husband, they do show that religion was the primary topic of discussion in the courtroom that day.
Two letters written by Jo Anne White were submitted to the court as exhibits and were the subject of the initial discussion about religion. In one letter, submitted to The Daily Times as a letter to the editor in 2006, White offered $1,000 to anyone who “can prove that the Bible says God changed the Sabbath to Sunday.”
Mark of the beast
At one point during the hearing, after Garrett asked White what the Bible says about the “mark of the beast,” Shepherd voiced his objection to the questioning.
“If it’s something said to the child or involving the child, then I think it’s fair game,” Shepherd says in the transcripts. “But to just tell me what she believes the Bible teaches about salvation, the mark of the beast and hell — I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
Young told Shepherd that “she was volunteering” the information.
Then Shepherd said, “Well, I still don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss doctrine in churches in the courtroom unless we’re talking about things that she may have said or may have done that affected the children.”
Young replied, “Well, straighten me out. What is this mark of the beast stuff? I don’t understand it.”
At that point, the courtroom discussion turned to worship, the Ten Commandments, biblical history and an in-depth conversation about the mark of the beast and end-time prophesy (continuing for more than 20 pages in the transcripts, some of which are available by clicking the link in the box next to this story). Later, White was questioned by Garrett and the judge about the Roman Catholic Church.
Judge Young asked, “And so the pope then was the beast?”
White said, “No, the pope — the pope is …”
Shepherd interrupted again and said, “Your honor, I’m going to object. I feel like the court is attacking my client’s religious beliefs.”
Young said, “I’m not attacking anybody. I just want to understand what she’s talking about.”
Shepherd said, “As far as what she believes, I mean, we can bring a witness today to talk about what the church teaches and believes.”
Young replied, “I don’t care what the church teaches and believes. I want to know what she is talking about when she says ‘the mark of the beast,’ and I have yet to have it explained to me. I don’t understand it.”
Shepherd then said, “But, I mean, I see that as appropriate to discuss among individuals, but to make it part of the court record for a custody hearing, I don’t see the relevance.”
“Well, I would like to understand it, I really would,” Young said, “and I’m not trying to harp on you or put you in a box. But you’ve got to tell me — you’ve got to explain that to me.”
After additional discussion about the mark of the beast, the Book of Daniel and Babylon, Young said, “Let’s stop right here. When somebody says ‘beast’ to me, I’m thinking lion, tiger, gorilla — some sort of monster. Is that what you’re talking about?”
Again Shepherd protested, saying, “But, Your Honor, church doctrine is not the place to be in a courtroom for the court to decide what does the Bible say about the mark of the beast or hell. This is not the place to be litigating whose faith is right or wrong.”
Eventually, the judge abandoned the line of questioning and said he didn’t want to know what the beast is.
“I have never in my life felt so humiliated, mocked and degraded,” White said. “They were enjoying themselves at my expense.
“Judge Young decided he wanted to have a biblical study in the courtroom, and I ended up having to pay for it.
“These people had nothing bad they could say about me — so they decided to make the whole hearing about my religion.
“Craig Garrett tried to make me look like a religious nut. Nobody should be discriminated against or religiously persecuted like that in a courtroom.
“I feel like the decision had been made before I ever set foot in that courtroom.”
Religion and custody
While discussions about religion are permitted in child custody cases, most states prohibit religion from being a deciding factor unless there is evidence of potential or present harm to the child, such as if the parent engages in unusual cult activities or has an unorthodox lifestyle that endangers children, according to Nihara K. Choudhri’s book “Complete Guide to Divorce Law — Divorce Law for All Fifty States.” Religions that prohibit medical treatment are also regularly examined in child custody cases.
The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, outline specific rights including freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The “Establishment Clause” refers to the first of several pronouncements in the First Amendment to the Constitution stating that the government cannot make laws respecting the establishment of a religion. Together with the “Free Exercise Clause,” which says the government can’t prohibit the free exercise of religion, the two clauses make up what are known as the “religion clauses” of the First Amendment.
Many state courts have gone so far as to prohibit judges from restricting a visiting parent from exposing children to his or her own religion, even when the custodial parent is teaching a different religion, unless the judge can prove “likely serious harm to the child” because it violates the Free Exercise Clause.
The International Religious Liberty Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and inside the United Nations Headquarters in New York, is the legal arm of the Seventh-day Adventist church charged with protecting religious rights. The association was contacted by Jo Ann White prior to her talking with The Daily Times.
Todd McFarland, associate general council for the International Religious Liberty Association said, “We’re certainly interested in what took place. Decisions cannot be made in the courtroom based on inquiry into someone’s belief system.”
A final ruling has not been made. The circuit court is expected to make a permanent custody ruling for the case in December.