Father says his custody rights violated because of Fundamentalist Mormon views

Divorce case limits what he can say, where he can take children.

The Salt Lake Tribune/April 23, 2010

Rocky Ridge - A Utah father is fighting an order that bars him from sharing his Fundamentalist Mormon views with his children or taking them to this small town he now calls home where most residents hold a religious belief in polygamy that a judge deemed "harmful."

Joseph Compton doesn't like the label "Fundamentalist Mormon." Instead, he prefers to describe himself as believing in "the gospel like Joseph Smith originally wrote it," which includes the religious tenet of plural marriage.

But that belief has put him outside the law, 4th District Judge Donald J. Eyre said in ruling last fall that gave Kathleen Compton temporary custody of the couple's four minor children, who range in age from 5 to 16. They also have four adult children.

Eyre ordered Compton, 49, to not "discuss polygamy or plural marriage with the minor children, allow the children to be in close proximity to those (other than himself) who practice polygamy or plural marriage or who aid or abet those who do."

Eyre also barred Compton from taking the children within the incorporated boundaries of Rocky Ridge, a community located in Juab County where the berry farmer and fundamentalists who practice plural marriage live.

Allowing the children to associate with residents there would entail "unnecessary and harmful conflict" with the children's non-polygamous upbringing, the judge said in his findings.

Compton said he is unwilling to deny his beliefs. But that does not give the state leeway to trample his rights under Utah law or the U.S. Constitution, he said.

"I want to be able to speak freely, I want to be able to travel freely, I want to be able to answer my children's questions freely," Compton said. "I have sincerely held religious beliefs that others object to. That's OK. But I can't have my free choice? That is what I object to."

Grave threat of harm? » Rocky Ridge, founded in 1972 and incorporated in 1996, has about 800 residents. A majority are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, also known as the Allred Group, which adheres to a fundamentalist version of Mormonism that includes plural marriage -- which the sect only sanctions between consenting adults. The enclave includes homes, a private school, several businesses, an elk farm, a volunteer fire department and a church.

Aaron Bronson, an AUB representative who serves on the Utah Safety Net Committee, said not all those who live in Rocky Ridge practice polygamy or belong to the group. Compton's case is the first to identify the community as an unfit place for children.

"Yes, we do believe some things that are not in harmony with the rest of the world," Bronson said, but the ruling is "disturbing."

The constitutional and parental rights issues raised in the Compton divorce case have been the subject of similar legal proceedings in Utah and several other states.

A Chicago judge ruled earlier this month that a Catholic father can take his preschool-age daughter to Mass even though the girl's mother is raising her in the Jewish faith, undoing a previous decision that barred him from taking her to any "non-Jewish religious activities." The judge said there was no evidence exposure to other religious practices would harm the child.

In 2006, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned a lower court decision that prohibited a father from sharing his Fundamentalist Mormon belief in polygamy with his minor daughter, finding that "illegality of the proposed conduct on its own is not sufficient to warrant the restriction."

Absent a finding that discussing such matters would pose a "grave threat of harm" to a child, there is insufficient basis for the infringing on constitutionally protected right of a parent to "speak to a child about religion as he or she sees fit," the court wrote.

And the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that living in a plural family alone was not reason enough to prohibit a couple from adopting children of one plural wife after she died of cancer. Polygamy may be prohibited, but that does not mean the state must deny any or all civil rights to polygamists, wrote Chief Justice Christine Durham.

David O. Leavitt, who is representing Kathleen Compton, said Thursday that the Utah case is "very much going to become a battle over [Joseph Compton's] right to say what he wants and the mother's right and society's right to protect children."

"An illegal lifestyle" » The Comptons, married nearly 27 years, built a home in Mona at the edge of Rocky Ridge in 2007 after moving to Utah from Missouri, where Compton's scriptural studies first led him to see things "as they originally were."

Compton has been baptized by and received certain religious ordinances from the AUB.

Yet, like his wife, Compton still considers himself a faithful member of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite being excommunicated after his fundamentalist views were outed last summer in court proceedings.

The LDS Church denounced plural marriage in 1890 and again in 1904, and now excommunicates church members who engage in or advocate the practice.

In her divorce petition, Kathleen Compton, 47, said she gave her husband an ultimatum after he sought her consent last year to take a second wife: He could choose his family or the new woman and polygamy.

Compton refused to abandon his beliefs, though he has not gone ahead with that spiritual marriage, he says.

In initial proceedings, Compton represented himself. He has now hired Salt Lake Attorney Daniel Irvin, who represented polygamist John Daniel Kingston in a child welfare case.

Leavitt, who as Juab County Attorney prosecuted polygamist Tom Green in 2000, argued in a hearing last summer that Compton's beliefs were "an inappropriate and illegal lifestyle" and asked Eyre to prevent him from taking the children into the "geographic boundaries" of Rocky Ridge.

Leavitt also asked that Compton be barred from leaving the children "in the custody or in the presence of anyone other than [himself] who espouses religious beliefs regarding polygamy," according to a hearing transcript.

Leavitt said it would be inappropriate to expose the children to a felonious lifestyle. And in Rocky Ridge, "a very high percentage of that community is violating that law," Leavitt said as he urged Eyre to draw a line around the town.

"It seems to me that we defeat every purpose if we don't keep those children outside the geographic boundaries of a place that is a known haven for polygamy," Leavitt said during the hearing. "We wouldn't let a child go into a known drug house for the same reason. They're both felonies."

In a telephone interview, Leavitt said he has a "difficult time with the argument that something that is a felony is not going to be found inherently dangerous to children.

"You first have to come at this with the understanding that bigamy is a felony, and if you know anything about Rocky Ridge you'll understand that it is a well-known haven for bigamists," he said. "Polygamy is a felony and it is in the best interest of children to keep them away from that kind of conduct."

"A good father" » During the hearing, Compton told Eyre he had no intention of pressuring his children to adopt his beliefs.

"I just want to be a good father and have the opportunity to be with them and associate with them," he said, adding that, "there is nothing to show that teaching children the importance of plural celestial marriage is damaging."

But Eyre adopted the restrictions proposed by Leavitt, saying they were in keeping with Kathleen Compton's desire to "maintain a certain religious background." The judge also included a requirement that visits with the children take place at his wife's apartment in Utah County -- something Compton argued would be a hardship.

"It's not convenient for her or me," said Compton, who has rented the couple's home and is living with a monogamous couple and their children in Rocky Ridge. "[My children] ask me every time how much longer before they can come stay at my house. I want my visitation in my home. "

Compton said four of the couple's eight children had a "dual upbringing" that included exposure to the LDS Church and "those who believe the gospel in its fullness."

"I'm not trying to force them into any one particular box," he said. "It is something they'll have to choose when they get older."

But he said he does want his constitutional and parental rights upheld and doesn't believe he is putting the children in any danger by answering questions about his faith or letting them be around others who share it .

Irvin also notes in a newly filed motion that requiring Compton to avoid exposing his children to others who share his beliefs is impossible since he is "not familiar with the estimated 15,000 Utah residents who [purportedly] practice polygamy or plural marriage."

Bronson, the AUB member, said the community's experience has been that not all children born and raised in Fundamentalist Mormon or polygamous families follow the religion as adults.

"It's obvious that just because someone is born with a certain background doesn't determine all the choices they make in their life," he said.

But Leavitt said Kathleen Compton believes her husband "very much" wants to indoctrinate his children in the fundamentalist version of Mormonism, which violates the family's religious traditions.

"This woman wants her children protected from the influence of polygamists," he said. "We should not get hung up on what a parent's right of expression is and forget what the children's right to safety is."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Compton's association with the AUB.

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