PHOENIX – The question of whether Mormons are “Christians” may be a thought-provoking debate for theologians.
But the state Court of Appeals is warning Arizona judges to stay away from such issues.
And the appellate judges are advising parents who get divorced they need to be careful in how they word the provisions of any parenting plan in a dissolution decree if they have strong feelings about the religious training for their children.
In a unanimous ruling, the appellate judges struck down a ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Mandell. They said he is constitutionally precluded from issuing a ruling, even if he has testimony to support his conclusion.
The case involves a dispute between Kathleen and Shawn Ball, married in 1999. They have two children.
In 2017, the couple divorced, with both parents representing themselves.
As part of the procedure, they filled out a court-provided “parenting plan” that, among other things, stipulated each parent may take the children to any church or place of worship while he or she has custody. And it says that both parents agree the children “may be instructed in the Christian faith.”
About a year later, the father joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the children occasionally joined him at meetings. After learning of this, the mother sought legal intervention, claiming the father was violating the parenting plan because his church is not Christian.
During the hearing, a youth ministry leader testified the LDS church is not Christian. Based on that, Mandell sided with the mother, ruling “that Mormonism does not fall within the confines of Christian faith,” and forbidding the father from taking the children to LDS services.
Appellate Judge Paul McMurdie said that ruling was wrong on two fronts.
He pointed out that the parenting agreement said either parent could take the children to whatever place of worship that parent chose. So there was no violation.
But the bigger legal problem, McMurdie wrote, was Mandell’s decision to even consider the issue of the status of the Mormon church.
“The Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, preclude civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters,” he said. That, McMurdie said, keeps courts out of the business of theological controversy, church discipline and the conformity of members of the church to the standards required of them.
McMurdie said the question Mandell sought to answer about the status of the LDS church and whether it falls under the umbrella of Christianity clearly falls into the category of prohibited court conduct.
“That very question has long been a matter of theological debate in the United States,” the appellate judge said, citing various publications which have looked at the issue.
“A secular court must avoid ruling on such issues to prevent the appearance that government favors one religious view over another,” McMurdie said. In fact, he said, it’s even more basic than that.
“Courts are not the appropriate forum to assess whether someone who self-identifies as ‘Christian’ qualifies to use that term,” McMurdie said. He said allowing Mandell’s order to stand would create “irreparable” harm of government intrusion into religious affairs.
McMurdie said there’s a lesson in all this.
“Parents who wish to address aspects of their children’s religious education in a parenting plan should take great care to ensure those provisions are as specific and detailed as possible,” he wrote, avoiding the risk of getting courts involved in religious matters.
“This case provides a potent example of this possibility made real,” McMurdie said. “The ambiguities surrounding the phrase ‘the Christian faith’ thrust the curt directly into a matter of theological controversy in which it could not take part.”
The appellate judges stressed that their ruling does not bar trial judges from enforcing parts of a parenting plan even if they do touch on religious issues.
So, for example, they said, a court can enforce an approved parenting plan that specifies into the type of religious education that is supposed to be provided to children. And there even is legal precedent in Arizona for judges to intercede when conflicting religious beliefs “affect the general welfare of the child.”
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