Utah high court says polygamous father is allowed to share his beliefs with his children

KSL TV 5 NBC News, Utah/December 31, 2022

By Emily Ashcraft

Salt Lake City — A Utah father and member of the Kingston polygamous clan fought a Salt Lake district court’s decision to prohibit him from encouraging his children to adopt his religion’s teachings.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled in his favor on Dec. 22, with three of five judges saying the restriction against sharing religious beliefs should be more narrow to address specific concerns rather than a broad prohibition.

When Ryan Kingston and his wife, Jessica Kingston, were in the middle of divorce proceedings, the teachings of the Kingston Group, a polygamous Utah sect also known as “the Order,” were a key issue. Jessica argued that the group’s religious teachings and practices, including polygamy, are not in her children’s best interests.

Third District Judge Andrew Stone agreed that the four children faced potential harm from exposure to their father’s religious community. The court found the group’s practices of grooming children for marriage at an early age and demonizing people who had left the religion — including their mother — would be harmful to them.

The district court decision said Ryan Kingston “prioritizes plural marriages and adhering to his religious practices” over his children’s interests, which was supported by his requests that his children attend Ensign Academy, which emphasizes obedience to the Order.

Jessica Kingston was granted legal custody, but physical custody was given equally to both parents. The court ordered that the children could not be encouraged to adopt teachings of any religion or be baptized without the consent of their mother.

After the divorce was granted but before the court resolved custody issues, Ryan Kingston began practicing polygamy and married two wives, according to court documents.

The Supreme Court’s decision

Ryan Kingston did not contest Jessica Kingston’s right to determine whether their children are baptized, but argued he has a right to encourage his children to adopt a religion under the 14th Amendment and appealed the decision. He said the district court’s order violated his right to free speech and his parental rights.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the father.

“Ryan’s loss of legal custody does not mean he is completely bereft of parental rights,” the Supreme Court decision states.

The justices told the district court to consider the case again to find a more narrow way to address the issue — but said they do not believe Kingston’s argument that the district court did not support its decision.

The state Supreme Court determined that although there is a compelling government interest that the restriction was based on, the restriction should have been more specific to address that directly, citing strict scrutiny — a legal standard applied when considering constitutional rights.

The decision said several states have concluded that after a divorce each parent should be allowed to give religious exposure and instruction and the opinion said it is plausible that the children would benefit from exposure to multiple religions.

However, the three judges, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, Court of Appeals Judge David Mortensen and Court of Appeals Judge Ryan Tenney agreed with Jessica Kingston that the state should shield children from psychological harm, and protect them from grooming for early marriage or exposure to teachings that ostracize or demonize outsiders. The two Utah Court of Appeals judges were involved in the decision to replace Justice Deno Himonas, who had retired before the case was discussed, and Justice Thomas Lee, who recused himself.

The district court will now consider the case again and work to create a more tailored remedy to address the mother’s concerns.

Dissenting opinion

Two of the five judges did not agree with that decision. Associate Chief Justice John Pearce issued a dissenting opinion where he noted that this was an unprecedented step. He said according to statute all parental rights are subject to allocation by the court, after considering a child’s best interests.

“Until today, we have followed the statutory framework that makes the child’s best interest the paramount concern and permits a court to allocate a fundamental parental right to one parent when presented with evidence that the other parent’s exercise of that right risks harm to the child,” Pearce said.

The dissenting opinion said it is typically best for children if both parents participate in religious upbringing, but if a parent shows there is a potential harm, the district court can allocate that right to one parent.

Pearce and Justice Paige Petersen did not agree that if a court finds the exercise of a parental right could harm the children that the decision to give that right to one parent should be subject to “strict scrutiny.”

The dissenting opinion said Utah law suggests instead considering whether the court found there was potential harm to the child, and that under this standard the restriction against Kingston encouraging his children to follow his religious beliefs should be kept.

“We are presented with an unchallenged factual record that demonstrates that if given the opportunity to influence his children’s religious upbringing, Ryan will harm his children,” the dissent states.

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