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Religion, polygamy at heart of Utah couple's divorce and custody dispute

Published December 10, 2014 8:02 am

Divorce • Order forbids polygamous discussion but lets husband take kids to an LDS church.
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A Utah woman is fighting a temporary court order barring her from talking to her children about her fundamentalist Mormon beliefs, including polygamy.

The order, issued in October by a 3rd District Court divorce commissioner as part of a custody dispute, also prevents the mother of three from talking about politics or about any faith other than the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Raised a Mormon, the 33-year-old woman has been studying the early church teachings and history and currently attends the polygamy-practicing Apostolic United Brethren church in Bluffdale, although she is not a member of the church.



Divorce Commissioner Kim Luhn eased the restriction on speech to a degree during a court hearing on Tuesday, amending the order to allow for age-appropriate conversation about faith. Her decision followed arguments from the woman's attorney, Laura Fuller, who said the order's prohibitions violate her client's First Amendment and constitutional rights.

"My problem is not with [the woman's] religion. I don't care if her conduct is a result of her belief in the UAB," Luhn said, after acknowledging the order may have been too broad. "I care that her conduct is creating chaos for the children and in essence rising to the level of emotional abuse."

The amended order will be in place until a Jan. 8 review hearing. And while religion was not the focus of Tuesday's hearing, it is at the heart of the dispute between the couple, according to the woman, her family members and her attorney.

Court documents in the the case are mostly sealed as is typical in divorce proceedings, but Fuller says all of the affidavit's submitted by the father reference religion.

"He doesn't want [the children] to go to join a polygamous church," she said of the father, who currently has sole custody of the children.

The woman's brother also told The Tribune that he and her parents were specifically asked by the father to support his effort to "take custody of the children in order to keep them away from a polygamous church."

The Tribune is not naming the couple or their family members in order to protect the identities of the children, who are 7, 5 and 18 months.

But an attorney for the father said Tuesday that placing religion at the center of the case is a mischaracterization of the issues in what is a high conflict and difficult situation between divorcing parents.

"Her investigation of an alternate religion has certainly played into why the parties are separating and seeking a divorce, but it has nothing to do with the children," Kendra Shirey said after the hearing. "Everything that we are doing for the commissioner and this court is about ensuring that the children's best interests are met."

Shirey said Luhn has been clear from the start that her intention was not to restrict the mother's religious views.

"What [the commissioner's] goal has been about is caring for the children," she said.

It was concern for his children's well being that prompted the father last month to seek a temporary restraining order against his wife, claiming she had violated the conditions of the court's order, not by talking about religion, but through statements about the divorce that have upset the children and by seeking unsupervised time with them.

"She would say things about the court case in front of the children," the man testified on Tuesday. "She would talk about what was going on with the court case, as far as her version of the truth."

The judge allowed the temporary restraining order to lapse on Tuesday after hearing testimony from both parents.

The children's mother, who was a stay-at-home parent and home-schooled her elder children before being court-ordered to move out of the family home, insists she too is working in her children's best interests. She told the Tribune she's a good mother who has never abused or neglected her children.

She also called the court's restrictions on her exploration of faith "absurd."

Among the order's conditions: The children are to be allowed to continue attending LDS church services. It also says the prohibition on the mother's discussion of other churches, including the AUB, can be lifted if she "decides to join another religious group."

"This court order is about religion," the woman told The Tribune. "And it's in place to prohibit me from discussing any religion with my children and it's anti-constitutional."

The case mirrors a 2002 Pennsylvania divorce case, in which a state court barred fundamentalist Mormon from sharing his beliefs, including polygamy, with his 13-year-old daughter until she reached the age of 18. The man's religion was his wife's primary reason for seeking a divorce. In 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the man could teach his daughter about polygamy over his wife's objections.

 

 

 

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