Thursday, August 18, 2005

Court Slaps Bradford's Hand for Wiccan Decision: No Constitutional Implication

Judge Patricia Riley, writing for a unanimous Indiana Court of Appeals in In Re Jones, correctly ruled that Marion Superior Court's Chief Judge, Cale Bradford, abused his discretion when he recently ordered as part of a child custody decision that the parents of an Indianapolis child must shelter their child from "involvement and observance of non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals." But the decision was not founded upon any constitutional ground and, as such, offers no guidance on how far Indiana courts can go in imposing restrictions on parental involvement in the religious teaching of their chidren. In an apparent slap at Bradford, Judge Riley commented that Bradford's ruling, a reaffirmation of an earlier order by a commissioner for his court, reflected Bradford's "personal opinion of [the parents] Wiccan beliefs and rituals" rather than a statutorily permitted basis for the restriction.

In reaching its decision, the Court said it was exercising judicial restraint in constitutional matters. Under this maxim, a court should refrain from deciding constitutional questions unless there are no non-constitutional grounds presented for resolving a case. Here, the Court noted that Indiana law permits custodial authority to be limited upon a showing that either the physical health of the child is endangered or the emotional health of the child is impaired. The record in this case showed no such finding on either basis. Instead, the court found that Judge Bradford had imposed his own personal opinions of Wiccan beliefs and rituals. That was an abuse of his discretion according to Judge Riley. Accordingly, she ordered the restriction removed from his original child custody order.

When Judge Bradford originally issued his order, it quickly gained national notoriety--attention that did not reflect well on Indiana courts. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union quickly intervened on behalf of the child's father in an effort to overturn Judge Bradford's order. While the Court of Appeals' decision is certainly welcome news, there is not much that can be read into the opinion other than Judge Bradford erred in the way he reached his decision by imposing his own personal views on the parent's religious beliefs. It must be observed that Judge Bradford's order could well have been upheld under Indiana law if he had made a finding in the record that, by involving the child in Wiccan beliefs and rituals, either the child's physical health might have been endangered or his emotional health impaired. Whether such an application of Indiana law would violate any constitutional right a parent has to control the religious teachings of their own children is a matter to be decided another day. But at least this embarrassing case can fade away as a memory only for now.


davidnelson1970 said...
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Jim Maroe said...

The Bradford brothers seem to have their own Fringe Festival going. Personally, I prefer the one that brings fame to Indy, not infamy. You know you’re no longer an asset to Indianapolis when, as a public figure, you’ve got less taste and talent than The Glamorous Andrea Merlyn.