Tennessee mom faces jail for baptizing her two children without husband’s consent

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Tennessee mom faces jail for baptizing her two children without husband’s consent; Lauren Jarrell violated court order stating Emmett Blake Jarrell must be consulted regarding religious upbringing

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Shelby County mother faces contempt-of-court charges and possible jail time for baptizing her two children without the knowledge or consent of her ex-husband.

This week the Tennessee Court of Appeals said Lauren Jarrell must face a criminal contempt hearing for violating a court order that said major decisions regarding the religious upbringing of her two children should be made jointly with the children’s father.

Both parents are Christian. Emmett Blake Jarrell, the father, is a member of the United Methodist Church, and she’s a Presbyterian.

The father, according to court records, thought the children should be baptized when they are older and better able to understand the significance of the baptismal ceremony. The couple had even consulted a minister when they were married because they couldn’t agree what age was best for the kids to be baptized. Records show the children will be 5 and 7 next month.

The Court of Appeals decision sides with the father, who had asked that his ex-wife be convicted of criminal contempt after discovering that she baptized the kids against his wishes.

Legal experts disagree on whether the appellate court decision is treading into the forbidden territory of deciding spiritual doctrine or is just upholding the law when a parent is accused of flagrantly violating a court order.

One of the mother’s lawyers maintains that the Tennessee parenting plan, which requires parents to agree on religious upbringing, is unconstitutional. There has been no decision made on whether the mother will appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“It’s still our position that the courts should not interfere with religious disputes between parents, and that a divorced parent has the constitutional right to influence their children with their personal religion for so long as there is no showing of personal harm to the children,” Mary Morgan Whitfield, one of the mother’s attorneys said.

Civil contempt is reserved for people who can do something, like pay their back child support, to purge themselves of the charges. The mother is facing criminal contempt charges, Whitfield said, because the baptisms can’t be undone.

“So she’s facing jail time for exercising her constitutional rights.”

If the mother is convicted of two counts of criminal contempt, she could face up to 20 days in jail and a $100 fine.

The father’s attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment.

He has maintained in court documents that the mother violated a court order requiring the couple to seek mediation if they could not agree on major decisions involving the children’s religious upbringing. The father had argued that if a mediator ruled against him, he would have at least gotten the opportunity to be present at his children’s baptisms instead of finding out about it later.

“Obviously she knew that the father did not want the children baptized at that age and she did that without telling him,” Memphis attorney Any Amundsen, who is not involved in the case, said of the mother. “She violated the court order.”

A lower court in Shelby County has already found the mother in contempt of court. The appellate court decision overturned that decision and said criminal contempt proceedings are more appropriate.

The mother had argued that it was wrong for the lower court to find her in contempt because it was tantamount to preferring the father’s religious views on baptism over hers.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed.

“Mother is correct that courts ‘must maintain strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents’ and they may not ‘prefer the religious views of one parent over another unless one parent’s religious beliefs and practices threaten the health and well-being of the child,” Judge Alan E. Highers wrote. “However, simply put, this is not a religious dispute.” Highers said the court is only being asked to determine whether the mother can be found in contempt for failing to follow the court order.

Nashville attorney Helen Rogers says the courts ought to stay away from these kinds of decisions.

“How would a court decide between baptizing a Presbyterian and a Methodist — or a Catholic?” Rogers asked. She wondered whether a court could step in and order the child of a Muslim and a Jew to attend a synagogue or a mosque. The problem, she said, is that the language in the standard parenting plan in Tennessee ultimately gives courts the authority to decide if they can’t come to agreement.

“The bigger kind of global look at this is should religious decision-making be a private matter or should it be something that a court orders to begin with,” Rogers asked.

Amundsen, however, said the courts are only following the wishes of the legislature, which passed a law that said courts will considering religious upbringing when it comes to parental decision-making.

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