Jeffrey Kendall left Catholicism in 1991 for a
fire-and-brimstone church known for aggressive proselytizing. Then
his wife, Barbara, left her own mild Jewish faith for a strong
Orthodox Judaism. Sparks flew. The Boston-area couple filed for
That left the three kids. Mom was raising them as Jews, as
the couple agreed before marriage. But dad wanted to expose them to
his religious beliefs, too.
This week the highest state court in Massachusetts said no.
Citing the children's "best interest," the Supreme Judicial Court
barred Mr. Kendall from taking his children to church or discussing
religion with them at all. His view that one must choose Jesus
Christ or be "damned" could cause harm to the kids, the court ruled.
Choice of religion, one of the most private and sacred of
American rights, has long been worked out inside families when
parents are of different faiths - as they increasing are in
American society. But in divorce proceedings, state courts
sometimes do intervene on behalf of the children's interest, as a
matter of family law.
Yet the boldness of the ruling, which gives Massachusetts
courts and psychologists enormous power to choose between faiths in
cases of divorce, has caused a national stir. Partly this is
attributed to concern that children will be caught in a crossfire
between two radically different faiths. Partly it is because the
state court revised its former position - that exposing kids to
diverse religious views is a healthy thing even when parents
Legally, Tuesday's 6-to-0 ruling has no immediate national
significance, although Mr. Kendall has all but said he plans an
appeal to the US Supreme Court. "There has been no actual
substantial harm to the children," insists Michael Greco, Mr.
Kendall's lawyer. "Talking about heaven, hell, and damnation is
what religions do. What business does the court have choosing a
religion to prevent potential harm?"
Underneath the case at hand is a concern among civil
libertarians that when courts decide what is good for kids,
minority religions that differ strongly from the mainstream are the
"In most cases, it is a mistake for the court to referee
because courts are not very good psychologists and don't know how
parental conflicts may affect children, who are sturdier than most
people think," says Carl Schneider, a law professor at the
University of Michigan. "But it is also an invitation for judges to
do what the Constitution doesn't want them to do - discriminate on
the basis of the content of religion."
The issue is not going away any time soon. Studies show
increasing numbers of Americans switching faiths or converting,
trying new faiths or traditions, or dropping organized religion