Judge: Children Forced to Obey Doctrine

Omaha World-Herald/March 5, 1990
By a World-Herald Staff Writer

York, Neb. -- York County District Judge Bryce Bartu ruled that Carol Peterson's "religious beliefs have caused a deficiency" in her ability to reasonably rear her children.

In the two years since her divorce, she "has adopted systems of corporal punishment and fear to force obedience and submission of her children to the doctrine of her church," he wrote.

The three children would be likely to suffer physical and mental harm if their mother "were allowed to continue her practice of corporal punishment and fear onto these children," he wrote.

In court filings and in trial Jan. 19 and 24, lawyers for the children's father sought to show that Mrs. Peterson scared and intimidated her children with threats of hell and the loss of their souls and used excessive physical punishment.

Bartu, in his ruling, cited a standard upheld by the Nebraska Supreme Court in 1981: "Generally, courts preserve an attitude of impartiality between religions and will not disqualify a parent because of his or her religious beliefs," he wrote. "However, when such beliefs threaten the health and well-being of children, then the courts have a duty to act to remove children from such abuse."

Bartu ordered Mrs. Peterson not to speak to her children of her religion.

Mrs. Peterson did not have an attorney until the second day of her two-day trial. Richard K. Watts of Osceola, an attorney who has taken the case without fee, said he plans to appeal all aspects of the ruling either in federal court or in the Nebraska Supreme Court.

The federal route is likely to be faster, and the U.S. Court for the District of Nebraska might be willing take up the case because of constutional issues of freedom of speech and religion, Watts said.

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