Dealing With Jehovah's Witness Custody Cases



In the United States there are over 1,000 custody cases fought annually involving Jehovah's Witness. Most involve a young couple in which the mother is converted to the Witnesses, severely alienating the father, and resulting in a divorce. Because the non-Witness fighting for custody is typically the father, the author recounted primarily the difficulties encountered in these kinds of cases. The major concern of the fathers is that raising their children as Jehovah's Witnesses is not conductive of achieving the goals that most fathers deem important for their children. These include normal social involvement in school, attending college, pursuing a career, being able to utilize appropriate medical treatment, and the development of tolerance toward humans of a variety of religious faiths and orientations. The author reviewed the literature relative tot he problems and child custody trends and discussed the most appropriate strategy for the non-Witness to prevail in court on this manner.




Background of Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses are an offshoot of the second adventists movement which developed in the middle 1800s. Judging by their memorial of Christ's death attendance, a required Witness activity, and thus it is a rough gauge of adherents, they number over twelve-million world wide. Jehovah's Witnesses have gained public prominence primarily because of their antagonism to all secular political systems, and by refusing to give these systems formal allegiance, including becoming part of the military, voting, holding public office, and saluting the flag, (Bergman, 1984, 1990). They share many of the features of late nineteenth and early twentieth century apocalypticism, including repeated predictions of the imminent end of the world-such as in 1914, 1925, 1975 - which will usher in God's Kingdom (Brose, 1982; Zygmunt, 1970). Pittsburgh businessman Charles Taze Russell who founded the group in 1879, worked tirelessly to spread his views until his death in 1916. The mantel was then passed on to his personal attorney, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, who ruled with an iron hand until 1942 (Zygmunt, 1967).

Rutherford was far more militant than Russell and changed the direction of the movement considerably (White, 1967). As a result, many schisms occurred, and over half of Russell's followers eventually left because of the radical changes Rutherford instituted. His teaching to resist military involvement resulted in major conflicts with the American government, and Rutherford and seven other Society officers were eventually convicted of conspiring to obstruct the recruiting of soldiers (Penton, 1985). The adverse conditions in prison caused Rutherford's health to deteriorate considerably and he remained plagued with health problems throughout his life (Sprague, 1942). Sentenced to harsh terms of twenty years each, they endured prison for nine months before they were released on bail while their appeal was pending. As a result until he died Rutherford prociferously condemned the American government and its courts, and especially the Catholic Church, which he felt influenced his imprisonment.

Many people responded to Rutherford's condemnation of America by unleashing one of the worst waves of violent persecution against a religious group in United States in the twentieth century (ACLU, 1941) world wide. The Witnesses have experienced more church-state conflicts than all other large religious groups in the world, having been banned, or their activities severely proscribed, in the Untied States, Canada, and most of the western world (Penton, 1976; Manwaring, 1959, 1962). Until recently, they were banned in most communist countries, and still face problems in Israel, the Islamic nations and others.

After Rutherford's death in 1942, Nathan Knorr assumed the presidency. His forte was in business, and he changed the Watchover considerably. Gone were the virulent attacks against the government and religion, and in their place was a calm, reasoned condemnation (Harrison, 1978). Major changes in doctrine also occurred, and the membership grew faster than during any other period in their history.

The Witnesses teach that only 144,000 will go to Heaven, and the rest of the saved, the great crowd, or Jehovah's Witnesses in good standing will survive Armageddon to live forever on a restored paradise earth. The soul is not immortal and the state of the wicked is eternal annihilation. They reject the trinity, teach that only God has existed for eternity and His Son, Jesus, is a created being and the Holy Spirit is simply God's active force. A critical teaching is that salvation can be obtained only through working within the Watchover Society, which they teach is the only ark of salvation for mankind (Franz, 1983, 1991).

Each Witness is expected to spend much time studying the publications and proselytizing for the Society. Well known for their prodigious output of literature which they sell from door to door and on street corners. Their income from this activity last year in the United States alone was over one-billion, one-quarter million dollars according to their Dunn's report. A teaching that has caused them much trouble is that all other religions are under the control of Satan, and that all of those involved in them will be eternally annihilated (Franz, 1991). The clergy are especially an evil class because they are leading the people away from the truth, which only the Watchover is privy to. While the Bible is held to be the word of God, its interpretation can be made only by the Watch over Society, not individuals. Witnesses are prohibited from reading dissident literature, even that which is not critical to the Watchover Society (Beverley, 1986). Because the end of the world is still taught to be very close, attending college, having families, and even marriage is discouraged (Bergman, 1990).

One of their most infamous past teachings was their refusal to accept vaccinations and organ transplants (both doctrines which have been reversed). And, the Watchover ruled in 1961 that persons accepting blood transfusions are to be disfellowshipped (Bergman, 1990, 1991 a). This prohibition extends to their children, and as a result judges typically remove the children from the custody of the parents, and the new guardian allows doctors to use transfusion treatment. When the crisis is past, the parents are usually again given custody.

While the use of the term "Cult" to describe the Jehovah's Witnesses may be regarded as perjorative, they fit most definitions of the term (Lifton, 1961; Dellinger, 1985). The Watchover Society is extremely exclusionistic, rigidly enforcing the isolation of its followers from all unnecessary contact with the world (Rogerson, 1972; Salzman, 1951, Sprague, 1942; Stroup, 1945). Their children are not allowed to involve themselves in any school activities other than those that are required, are discouraged from career advancement and attending college, and are required to rigidly conform to all Watchover rulings, even in small matters such as celebration which is in many ways more extreme than the Unificationists (Beverley, 1986). Although some areas, such as celebrating of Christmas or voting, often results in disfellowshipping. Extreme pressure also exists to be involved full time in selling literature for the organization, and all contributions received must be turned over to the Watchover (Beckford, 1972; Penton, 1985).

Major concerns include the influence of the sect on young people, issues related to coercion, the long-term effect of certain coercive practices on free will and the psychological adjustment of persons who are involved. All of these are commonly raised in Witness custody cases, pitting the Society against the state and forcing a judicial evaluation of the Society's teachings. The focus here is to summarize the literature which is pertinent to custody issues concerning the Jehovah's Witnesses, and to review the practical issues that must be addressed in these cases.

The Literature and Cases that Relate to Jehovah's Witness Custody

The Jehovah's Witnesses have experienced greater frequency and intensity of church-state conflicts than most all religious groups (Bergman, 1984, 190). Their persecution is to be condemned, but the Watchover has brought much of it on themselves by their often inhumane and irrational policies such as condemning flag salute or the purchase of political party cards, (Franz, 1991). The major past court battles were over their refusal to salute the flag (they interpret all pledges of allegiance to national emblems as idolatry). Today, their most impenetrable legal thicket is child custody (Moss, 1988). Former Chair of the American Child Custody Committee, Jeff Atkinson, concluded that in 1990 Jehovah's Witnesses were "probably responsible for half of the contested custody cases that are in courts of review around the country" (1994).

Partially because the Witnesses tend to be hostile toward all government and churches, and also because most people do not understand their beliefs, studies have consistently shown that they are now among the most disliked of all non-cult religious sects (Brinkerhoff ad Mackie, 1986). One study concluded that over 57% of all Americans are "somewhat" or "Very unfavorable" about Jehovah's Witnesses and only 4% had a "very favorable" impression, a more negative opinion than any other group surveyed even the Hare Krishnas (Sellers, 1990; Heymann, 1991, p. 124). This, plus the perception - based partly on empirical research - that it is more difficult for a child raised a strict Jehovah's Witness to be well adjusted to society, has motivated many courts to award the children to the non-Witness parent (Ward, 1988). Marital discord is relatively common when one parent becomes a Witness, and divorce often follows. If young children are involved in a divorce, custody battles often focus on the harmful psychological and social effects of the Witness religion on young persons (Franz, 1991; Moss, 1988; Hickman, 1985; Montague, 1977).

When Watchover practices which are detrimental to child development are used as a factor to grant custody to the non-Witness parent, much of the media publicity about them has been unfavorable. The Watchover tries to use these situations to their own advantage, but rarely tell the whole story. They have published articles stressing that it is necessary for a child to grow up healthy to have quality contact with both parents, but they have never discussed the clear negative influence that some of their teachings have on child development, and the fact that the incidence of mental illness problems among Witnesses exceeds the national average by as much as over four times (Spencer, 1975; Sack, 1985; Rylander, 1946; Janner, 1963; Montaque, 1977; Onoda, 1979; Jones, 1985).

Beginning in about 1978, the writer has consulted in over one hundred Witness custody cases, most involving a situation in which the wife becomes a Witness and the husband does not accept the Watchover teaching. If the wife's involvement and entrenchment is high and the husband's resistance strong, a divorce often follows. The escalation of conflicts in these cases often results because wives that become involved in the Witnesses typically pressure for extreme changes in the marriage. Most of the changes require the husband to alter his behavior in what often was a satisfactory marriage. Moss (1988, p.32) observed that 1,030 inquiries from Jehovah's Witnesses entangled in custody or visitation disputes were filed with the Watchover Society between February 1987 and January 1988. As Mangrum notes:

"…the conflict is most evident whenever the parent…belongs to an unorthodox religion of follows and unconventional way of life. Very often the courts believe that the child's best interest would be served by excluding family influences which are aberrational or unconventional (1991, p. 445)."

These cases are often complex, and clearly contradictory rulings are common but many judges will openly consider the influences of the Watchover teachings on the children involved. Some of the many recent custody cases that were decided in favor of the non-Witness include:

  1. In the Raymond Estes case the judge awarded custody of the six-year-old boy to the father concluding that being raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith is not "in the best interests of the child" (Montgomery, 1992, p.14).


  1. In 1990 in LeDoux vs. LeDoux, the Nebraska Supreme Court (No. 88-172) upheld an order barring a Witness father from teaching his sons information which is not consistent with Catholicism, even though the boys live with their mother, a Catholic.


  1. In Pennsylvania, a father was prohibited from taking his four-year-old daughter from door to door during his visitation periods.


  1. In Pater vs. Pater (Hamilton County, No. C-890553 and Ohio Supreme Court Pater vs Pater (1992), 63 Ohio St. 3d393) a psychologist testified that "Extracurricular activities and exposure to different cultural and religious beliefs are beneficial to a child's development" and such exposure is at odds with Witness beliefs.


  1. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses can be discussed to help decide a custody matter if they are "reasonably likely to adversely affect the child."


  1. Ellard versus Ellard (Montgomery County, TX, 350 Judicial District #92-01-00271) involved a twenty-three-year-old father, and twenty-four year old mother, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The father was repeatedly accused of being "potentially violent" a claim commonly used by Watchover followers to help insure that the Witness woman obtains custody. In this case the father was successful at the temporary hearing; the judge awarded custody to him, specifying that the father is to make all of the decisions relative to the religion in which the child will be raised. If the father chooses the Lutheran Church, for example, and wished that the child not be taken to Witness meetings, the wife must abide by this decision. Even if the mother had the child for a weekend, she is not allowed to take the child to the Kingdom hall, or openly teach him or her the Witness belief structure. At the final hearing custody was removed from the father and given to the mother.


  1. In Bentley v. Bentley, a case very similar to LeDoux "Affirmed a visitation modification prohibiting the non-custodial father from teaching his children the doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses and taking them to the sect's religious functions." Because they were being raised as Catholics by the custodial mother, the judge concluded they would be "emotionally strained and torn" as a result of the conflict (Mangrum, 1991, p.483).


  1. In the case of Mendez versus Mendez, Judge Philip W. Knight admitted that, "Religion was a very strong determining factor" in his 1985 decision awarding custody to Ignacio Mendez, the non-Witness parent, instead of Rita Mendez, the mother and Witness parent. In this case, the judge ruled that he did not want the daughter, Rebecca, to grow up "Confused and possibly hurt by the tug between the faiths of the mother and father, concluding that it is best to have one set of beliefs reigning in her life." Also important in the case was the Jehovah's Witness prohibition against blood transfusion. The judge felt these beliefs were so detrimental that he ordered the Witness mother not to expose their child to any teaching contrary to Catholicism, nor is she allowed to permit anyone else to do so.


  1. A March 18, 1993 Wisconsin 4th District Court of Appeals ruling upheld a court ruling that prevented the non-custodial parent from imposing his religious views on his children. The father, Robert Langue, now must visit his three daughters, ages 6, 9 and 11, only if supervised by a social worker to insure that he does not try in impose his "religious views on the children."


  1. A November 1993 Canadian Supreme court ruling in Young versus Young upheld the court's right to prohibit a non-custodial parent form indoctrinating and even proselytizing his child in the Watchover theology and lifestyle (See Canadian Press Report in Spectator, Jan 26, 1993 - see also Plouffe versus Plouffe).


The concerns behind these Rulings

The main conflict in these cases was summarized by Hastey as follows:

…turned down by the high court, the justices let stand a ruling that awarded custody of two Texas children to their father because the mother had become actively involved with the Jehovah's Witnesses. The…case involved Lawrence and Marianne Rutland, whose eight-year marriage ended in 1983, shortly after Mrs. Rutland became a Jehovah's Witness. Both Rutlands previously had been nominal Catholics, and at the time of the divorce both agreed that… their sons should reside with their mother. But a year later, Mr. Rutland went to court seeking to modify the custody agreement by having the boys taken away from their mother and placed with him. A trail judge agreed and was upheld by a state appeals panel. The Texas Supreme court then refused to review the case.

In her U.S. Supreme Court appeal, Marianne Rutland claimed that religious prejudice has pervaded the custody trial. Her lawyer said the trial was "no more than an inquisition-like examination of the mother's religion." Lawrence Rutland's attorney, on the other hand, argued that the state had a compelling interest in the children's welfare "that outweighs any burden thereby imposed on (Marianne Rutland's) religious freedoms" (1988, p.3).

Ward concluded that the court's concern in these cases often related to the Witness religion's

clear-cut, unwavering rules dictating how one conducts his or her life. Their door-to-door proselytizing is spurred by an urgent need to warn mankind of what they believe is the impending Battle of Armageddon and a desire to proclaim Biblical truths against the evil triumvirate of organized religion, business, and government (1988, p.21).

It was these beliefs which may have attracted persons such as Rita Mendez to the religion, but it was also these teachings that many judges have found objectionable. The importance of religion in the Mendez case is clear: of the 485 pages of custody proceedings, 51 percent (249 pages) contained references to religion (Tyner, 1991, p.9). Two psychologists and a psychiatrist agreed that Rita was the preferred custodial parent and the parent to whom the little girl had the deepest attachment, but they "also agreed that Rita's religion, at least where it affected her child, was troubling. The psychologists called her religion 'different' and 'deviates, not main stream'" (Ward, 1988, p.22). Their concerns included alienation in school and society because of Witness beliefs, and the possibility of the need for a blood transfusion which could produce a crisis in health and other areas. Dr. Levy testified:

Being raised a Jehovah's Witness would not be in the best interest of the child, given the fact that [their teachings]…do not fit in the Western way of life in this society. 'Living in this society, she needs to adapt herself to the mainstream of culture. She is growing up [here] and…If the majority of the country was Jehovah's Witnesses, we would not have any problem…it isn't healthy for this child to be raised a Jehovah's Witness (Ward, 1988, p.23).

Dr. Levy also stated that in his judgment:

emotional health is the ability to adapt to a particular culture…Bringing her up Catholic would allow her to adapt to our society and have the freedom that Catholic children have in the society, rather than take the chance and a possibility…in raising her as a Jehovah's Witness" (Quoted in Tyner, 1991, p.9).

The judge admitted in his decision that he was influenced by the expert testimony which concluded that the Witness religious upbringing and withholding critical medical care would be detrimental to the child, and consequently ordered that all decision relative to medical, dental, health, and general welfare are to be "vested solely and exclusively within the discretion of the husband, [as well as all decisions on] religious training, welfare, religious education and teaching."

The three judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeals affirmed Knight's decision, concluding the trial court had the right to consider the effects of the divorcing parents' religious differences on the children. And in 1988 the Supreme Court declined to review the case (Tyner, 1991, p.10). Courts have consistently ruled in custody cases that the best interests of the child should take precedence over all other factors - not what is in the best interests of either the mother or the father. A judge in a Pennsylvania case concluded:

We are convinced that embraced within the best interest concept is the stability and consistency of the child's spiritual inculcation. It would be an egregious error for our courts in a custody dispute to scrutinize the ability of parents to foster the child's emotional development, their capacity to provide adequate shelter, and their relative income, yet not review their respective religious beliefs (Morris versus Morris 412 A2d 139, Pa Super Ct., 1979)" (quoted in Tyner, 1991, p.10).

Mangrum (1991, pp.446) summarized one case as follows:

In LeDoux the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed on appeal a district court divorce decree that ordered the non-custodial father, a Jehovah's Witness, "to refrain from exposing or permitting any other person to expose his minor children to any religious practices or teachings inconsistent with the Catholic religion." In a concurring opinion, Judge Grant emphasized the possible breadth of the decision by opining: "I do not see how one parent with one set of religious beliefs can raise their minor children with full training and instruction in each parent's beliefs without reducing their minor children to a totally confused, psychologically disastrous state" (at 487, 452 N. W. 2d) (Grant, J., concurring, joined by Hastings, C.J., and Boslaugh, J.).

Since the interpretation of past court rulings is left to the discretion of the judge, some concluded that anything even hinting at religion will not be discussed in a custody hearing, others that religious beliefs can be scrutinized in detail. The rulings also vary according to state-- California requires only that a "clear, affirmative, showing that religious activities would be harmful to the child" whereas Maine will not consider a parent's religious practices unless the child's well-being "is immediately and substantially endangered by the religious practice in question" (Quoted in Tyner, 1991, p.10).

In one decision (Estes vs. Estes 89-C6103 Johnson County, KS, 1991) the court ruled that the child, a first grader born June 12, 1983, was to be removed from the mother's home and placed in the custody of the father largely because the mother was raising the child as a Witness. The court ruled he should not be raised a Witness, even though the domestic court services investigation recommended that the child remain with the mother. The reason the judge gave included the potential threat of the child's health because of the Watchtower prohibition on blood transfusions, their disparagement of all higher education, their teaching that all non-Witnesses including the child's father are in bonds of Satan and will be destroyed soon at Armageddon, and the fact that "the behavior of the minor child, Scotty, reflects that he is becoming more and more alienated from his father and from his extended family, believing that 'Christmas persons' those who celebrate Christmas as opposed to …the JWs who do not…are going to die…and should be shunned" (Tyner, 1991, p.18-19). The court also evaluated a booklet entitled Preparing for Child Custody Cases, which was written by the Watchtower headquarters staff to improve the odds that Witnesses prevailed in court, and concluded that this booklet "recommends the giving of testimony under oath which is known to be untrue." The court ruled that "because of the absolute conflict between the parents with reference to the Jehovah's Witness religion, and for good cause shown, sole custody of said minor child be granted to the respondent father" (Tyner, p.21). Further the wife was to be:

enjoined and restrained from exposing said minor child to any activities in which she participates as a member of the Jehovah's Witness religion and is to restrain form indoctrinating or attempting to indoctrinate the minor child in the restrictions and prohibitions of that religion; the petitioner is specifically ordered restrained from teaching said child or exposing said child to teachings that his father, grandmother, or other paternal relatives are 'of the Devil' or are 'of Satan' or that his relatives including his father and grandmother are 'going to die' and will be just 'dust…' (Estes v. Estes, 1991, 89-C6103, Johnson County, Kansas).

A follow-up on Cases where the Witness was awarded Custody

It is extremely important to do a follow-up on these cases, especially those in which the custody battle resulted in the Witness gaining custody. As to the latter, this writer is aware of many cases which argues that the decision was incorrect. In one such case the victim stated that his father left the Watchtower while his children were still very young. A divorce resulted and the father:

fought for custody rights of my sister and me until he could fight no more. Every effort was made to make me despise my father and by the time I was in my teens, I truly thought he was an evil person controlled by Satan (Johnson, 1992, p.3).

Johnson adds that his mother, a Witness, was given custody in spite of his father's "valiant efforts which took him all the way to the United States Supreme Court." He continues,


When my sister was eighteen, she was told by my mother that she could no longer see our father if she wanted to remain in 'good standing' with the congregation. I left the organization at this point, seeing this hypocrisy. My father committed suicide a few months back. He was literally destroyed by Jehovah's Witnesses." (Johnson, 1992, p.3).

Johnson adds that he believes his life would have been much better if his father had been awarded custody.

Practical Issues that must be Addressed.

In cases involving a father endeavoring to obtain custody of his children, one must at the onset realize that it is an uphill battle (Musetto, 1982; Cassidy, 1977). Some judges seem to feel that the worst mother is better that the best father. In fully about 90% of all divorces, custody is awarded to the mother regardless of all other factors. Wolf concluded "virtually all industrialized countries believe that children belong with their mothers," noting that only 3% of all families are headed by single fathers, a number which is slowly rising (1992, p.239). The current U.S. Census Bureau reports show the number of single fathers with their children is only 2.7%, the number of single mothers is 21.2% (Udansky, 1994:3A). Males are naïve to conclude, even if they are demonstrably the better parent , that they will receive custody. They must often prove beyond a doubt that the mother is blatantly unfit, often a very difficult task (Victor and Winkler, 1977; Ornstein, 1978). It usually requires much more than the father proving that he will be the better parent, and is related to the difficulties in obtaining justice in American courts. In one case, the woman left her husband and children to live with another man in another state. She was soon involved in a bank robbery which resulted in one man being killed.

A high speed chase followed, and when the police finally stopped the car, they were shocked to find the woman and her absolutely terrified two-year-old child in the car. The father then took the responsibility for the children, but a couple of years later, the woman decided that she had enough running around, and now wanted her children back. We argued in court that a woman who had involved herself in such criminal activity is a questionable mother, and the father had in these two years clearly proved his abilities. The judge responded that we all make mistakes, and duly pulled the children from the father's care (who was working full time, and supporting them in a middle class lifestyle) and gave them to the mother, who promptly went on welfare and later moved out of state. The pain I have seen these fathers go through, especially at the hands of our horribly unjust court system, is enormous. Is it any wonder that so many fathers soon resign themselves to this situation, and withdraw themselves from the lives of their children (Bergman, 1991, p.6).

In most of the Witness cases the author has worked with, the charge of spouse or child abuse is raised by the Witness party, often with little evidence. This is compounded by the tendency for men and women in our society to respond to frustration in different ways (Spiegel, 1986). Men tend to physically act out their aggression, and women are more apt to be verbally aggressive. Even in justifiable and understandable situations, responding physically tends to be seen as evidence that the male "cannot control himself" and thus is at least a potential child abuser (Ambrose et al., 1983; Gill, 1981). If there are any unresolved questions about his control, the male typically does not gain custody.

Witness wives raise this issue because the Watchtower often advises them that if any evidence for child abuse exists, either sexual or physical, such accusations often preclude the male form obtaining custody. This is also a concern in non-Witness cases - many studies have found that a couple living together for years with no accusations of child or sexual abuse until the woman files for divorce. As Felton noted:

The charge - sexually abusing a child - has surged in divorce custody proceedings. Fathers are the prime targets. Many accusations are false, made to hurt a spouse or to ensure sole custody….Gordon Blush spent the 1980s working with Karol Ross at the Macomb County family services clinic, making recommendations to judges in divorce cases and in custody and visitation disputes. Early in the decade the two noticed an increasing number of child sex abuse cases in their practice. "About 1982 or 1983 we began to see a proliferation of allegations regarding sexual abuse in the context of custody or visitation disputes,"…

The trend was noticed by others involved in divorce litigation as well. "I started doing child custody cases back in 1980 and one rarely, if ever, heard an [abuse] allegation," says Melvin Guyer, an attorney and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "By the mid-eighties the first of them started, and it was just like a wildfire." … "A decade ago nobody was doing more than one or two of these cases, so no one was getting much of a sense of what was going on," says Gail Benson, a family law attorney in Detroit. "As the load increased, lawyers like me stopped and looked around and said, 'I've got so many of these, there must be a problem.'" The problem, she claims is an explosion not in abuse, but in dubious allegations. …troubled by the large number of accusations they believed to be untrue, Blush and Ross looked at 24 cases they had been involved with…They found similarities they labeled the "SAID syndrome" :sexual allegations in divorce. They reported the findings in 1987 in the Conciliation Courts Review (1991, pp.6, 9).


Fathers who love their children enormously - often true to go through expensive, emotionally draining litigation to gain custody - find it extremely frustrating to be confronted with charges that he knows are false, but yet are very difficult to defend against in court. Because such charges are especially common in Witness custody cases, the father should endeavor to deal with this concern from the very beginning. One way is by insuring that, if this issue may be a concern, a neutral but respected third party, who is willing to testify that no abuse took place, is always with the male when he is with his children (Speigel, 1986).

In one Witness case the author worked with, a Hispanic father walked in on his sixteen-year-old stepson in the act of sexually molesting his seven year-old stepsister. The father reacted very decisively, immediately physically removing the boy (who was close to his size) for his daughter's room, and emphatically informing him that this behavior was totally unacceptable. Ironically, the father ended up in court for child "abuse" against his stepson and at the divorce hearing was not awarded custody of either his stepson or even his own daughter. The mother, a Witness, appeared to at least partially condone her son's behavior, rationalizing that he was only curious and was just "experimenting."

The woman in Witness cases may also attempt to goad her estranged husband into hitting her, hoping to use this as evidence against him in court. In altercations where both are struggling, the woman may try to convince the court to interpret the event as male-caused spouse abuse when in actuality she was flailing at him and he was only endeavoring to restrain her. If bruises are left, he will often lose. Some people bruise incredibly easily, and men are generally less prone to injury because of their size and higher level of muscle tissue which provides some protection. When goading fails, she may simply lie and claim that she was slapped and hit numerous times, realizing it will be her word against his -- and if there is any question, courts are inclined to believe her (Victor and Winkler, 1977; Fleder 1971). The common generalization is that males behave this way whereas females do not (or if they are, they are far less likely to cause tissue damage) and thus this response is seen in quite a different light than when the male responds aggressively.

Of course, if the man has been physically violent, either against his child or wife, and clear evidence if this exists (such as witnesses, police reports in which the officers observed aggressive behavior) it is largely a wasted effort for the father to endeavor to achieve custody. In most of the Witness cases that I have worked with, though, the father was likely innocent of such charges. A father usually will not spend a large amount of money endeavoring to achieve custody if he knows he was wrong. The foregoing should not be interpreted as implying that spouse or child abuse is not a major problem, but that in cases of non-Witness males involved in custody battles, false claims are common (Abcarian, 1992; Chelser, 1986).

Stability in the Child's Life

Overall, my recommendation is to do whatever is possible to save the marriage. In my experience, the majority of Witnesses who go through these custody battles will eventually themselves leave the Watchtower Society. They often soon become disillusioned with the organization and congregation, and many become bitter over the fact that they gave up their marriage to become involved in what they later come to believe is a human-made religious system (Bergman, 1984, 1985). This is an especially common result when they learn about the history of the Watchtower. If this is not possible, custody is an issue that must be reviewed.

It is imperative that fathers desiring custody be living with the children at the time of the custody hearing. A common situation I have observed is for the fathers to move out and live on his own in an apartment while the mother remains with the children in the family home. At the custody hearing, the court is unlikely to remove the child or children from her home and place them with the father if the current situation seems satisfactory (Krantzler, 1974; Sheresky, 1972). If the other parent will not move out, the person who wants custody should try to continue to live in the family home no matter how difficult. Judges have long been extremely reluctant to remove children from both familiar surroundings and their school in order to move them into an apartment with the father (Gardner, 1977; Goode, 1956). If the children are living with the father in the family home and are doing fairly well, the father's chances for custody are far higher (Young, 1973).

The Problem of Credibility

Judges often have difficulty accepting as bonafide the teachings that all Witnesses know are required in order to remain in the Watchtower. When one testifies in court that Witnesses are not allowed to join the Boy or Girl Scouts, become involved in any extracurricular activities at school, salute the flag, celebrate birthdays, give presents on holidays, or attend college, many judges, if they are aware of any of their prohibitions, accept only their flag salute stand as a true prohibition. Judges tend to believe that even though certain rules and prohibitions may exist, behavior prohibitions are both real and ideal, and consequently the ideals presented by the Watchtower can be violated with impunity by members. The example that some relate is, in spite of the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of birth control, many studies have found that no statistical difference of its use exists between Catholics and non-Catholics.

The Watchtower uses this fact to their advantage in court. Many Witnesses claim on the stand that they do not celebrate birthdays or allow their children to involve themselves in extracurricular activities and adhere to other Watchtower teachings only because of their own independent study of the Bible, not because of the Watchtower's teaching. In fact, they would be disfellowshipped if they did not go along with the Society in these areas. And almost nobody outside the Watchtower has concluded from the Bible alone that flag salute, attending college, organ transplants or blood transfusions (and most of the other problematic watchtower teachings) are sinful. That they conform to Watchtower requirements is shown in a study which showed the Witnesses are educationally at the bottom of the thirty groups studied by one researcher - only 4.7 percent have college degrees compared to 49.5% of Unitarians and 46.7% of Jews - and Witnesses were ranked at the bottom for an aggregate measure of social class using education, occupation, and income (Kosmin and Lachman, 1993; Bergman, 1981). Unitarians were ranked first, Disciples of Christ second, Agnostics third, and Congregationalists fourth.

Judges may assume that, even though many prohibitions exist, they have no practical effect on a specific case because the decision to follow the rules is up to the child or the parents. One must prove that this is in fact not the case, and for such "minor" violations as sending Christmas cards (even just season's greetings cards), if one is not fully repentant or if personality conflicts exists between the elders and the violator, the offender will likely be disfellowshipped. It must also be shown that disfellowshipping is far more rigid among the witnesses than among any other religious group that still practices it, including the Amish. The extreme degree that one is normally totally cut off from family and friends must be proved in court.

A person who leaves the movement or opposes the Witnesses - a category which includes most of the fathers who challenge custody on the basis of religion - are to be shunned by all Witnesses, including one's own children (Franz, 1991). It is obviously usually traumatic to be cut off by all of one's family members who remain Witnesses, and this is especially true for children:

Minor children of Witness parents are taught that they must gradually, as they grow up, lessen the amount of communication and relationship with the parent who has left the church. When the child is considered old enough to be personally accountable before God for his or her actions, he or she is expected - indeed pushed - to terminate the relationship with the non-Witness parent. Those who leave the church, either to join another or to be non-religious, are considered to be heinous, and it is believed that associating with them, even if they are your parents (or children, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents, etc.), will result in God's disapproval and ultimate condemnation. Witnesses are prevented from associating with family members who were once church members with the threat of being excommunicated themselves if they do so. For a Witness, being excommunicated is tantamount to eternal destruction, since they believe salvation can not be obtained only through their organization (Duron, 1991, p.17).

The writer states in her own case:

It is now sixteen years since I left the Witness religion. My daughter is grown. I will not watch her graduate from high school this month. Nor will I be a participant in her wedding, or even know about it. I will not meet or even see my grandchildren. I well do none of these things unless my daughter is no longer a Jehovah's Witness.(Duron, 1991, p.17).

Being cut off from one's family is only part of the problem. The Witness parent typically endeavors to denigrate and totally alienate the non-Witness parent. As Duron states:

For years [after our divorce]…an attempt was made to discredit me and to wean the children from any relationship with me under the guise that my visits were severely disrupting their lives. My son, now sixteen, recalls signing blank pieces of paper upon which his sister would later write; 'we don't want to see you any more because you don't serve Jehovah [God].' She later wrote me saying she really did want to have a relationship with me, but she felt she could not because of the church. This from an eleven year old child. The years went painfully by, punctuated by additional trauma for all of us, a total alienation from both children that lasted three years, a subsequent reunion after I initiated court action (that resulted in my gaining custody of my son) and a final parting with my daughter last summer (because she went with her mother and the Witnesses, thus was cut off from me) (1991, p.17).

The child in these cases may claim that the decision to cut off all relationships from a non-Witness was made on his or her own, but as Duron (1991, p.18) observes, "through my own personal experience and through those of many, many former Witnesses I know who are also living daily without family relationships" this decision was made solely because of the teachings and direct pressure from the Witness organization. Few children would on their own cut off all interaction with a parent because the parent elects to celebrate Christmas or does not accept 1914 as the date of Christ's second coming.

This severe alienation from the non-Witness parent has been a critical factor in a number of decision to award custody to the non-Witness parent. The court correctly sees that if the custody is awarded to the Witness parent, the child's alienation from the non-Witness parent will likely be severe, if not complete. On the other hand, if the custody is given to the non-Witness parent, the chances are far greater that the child will be able to establish a decent relationship with both parents. As Judge Baskins stated in the Mendez cases: "To be forced to choose between one's religion and one's child is repugnant to a society based on constitutional principles" (Ward, 1988, p.23). A good example of this is found in a report made to the court in the case of Selvaggio vs. Adams (Macomb Michigan Circuit Court case 94 388 DC).

Q. What do the people at the Kingdom Hall say about Dad?

A. You're bad, and that you, um…you don't serve Jehovah.

  1. They say that Daddy's bad because he doesn't serve Jehovah? And

what's gonna happen to Daddy?

  1. You're gonna die.

Q. When's Daddy gonna die?

  1. When paradise comes….At the end of the system.

Q. At the end of the system? What happens to you if you don't go to the Kingdom


  1. Um, I will die too…

Q. Okay. Who is going to paradise?

  1. Only the people who serve Jehovah.

Q. And who are the bad people?

  1. People who doesn't listen to Jehovah.

Q. What's going to happen to Daddy?

  1. You are going to die.

Q. What if you live with Daddy, what's going to happen?

A. Me and you will die.

Q. Why are you going to die?

  1. Because, if I live with you, I wouldn't serve Jehovah.

Q. So…if you live with Daddy, then you can't serve Jehovah?

  1. Yea…

Q. And when do they tell you these things?

A. At the Kingdom [Hall]…

Q. And what do you say to them when they do that?

  1. Um, I say my Daddy's not bad.

Q. Are you afraid to live with Daddy?

  1. Yeah.


Many judges find it hard to accept that the Watchtower rules are this extreme, and consequently this must be proved from the Watchtower's own publications and from the testimony of ex-Witnesses. It must also be proved in court that both non-Witnesses who oppose the Society and ex-Witnesses are viewed "like dogs that have returned to their vomit." Proving that opposers and ex-Witnesses are considered the worst of humanity, close to the devil himself - and this includes the non-Witness parent - it is critical because it demonstrates that the non-Witness parent will not have a normal relationship with their child or children if the Witness parent is given custody. If the non-Witness parent is awarded custody, it is far more likely that both parents will have a normal relationship with their children. Thus, Duron argues that,

Unless the factual circumstances of these situations are publicized, the Witnesses will continue to present themselves to the courts as innocent victims of religious persecution (1991, p.18).

The Problem of Religion and the Courts.

Many judges are leery of bringing the issue of religion into the courtroom, and will often not openly assign custody on the basis of religion. Some prefer that it not even be discussed in their court. It must be stressed that the actual concern is not religious doctrine but the lifestyle that the Watchtower requires, and especially the disastrous psychological consequences of this lifestyle (Magnani, 1986, 1988). In an early Witness case the judge ruled as to the effect of a Witness lifestyle on the children:

Prince v. Massachusetts [321 US 158 1949] established that protecting children constitutes a compelling governmental interest. In Prince, the court upheld a statute which prohibited children from distributing religious literature in violation of child labor laws, as necessary to protect the states interest in child safety. The case involved a guardian who allowed her nine-year-old ward to sell Jehovah's Witnesses' literature on city streets on evening, in accordance with both the guardian's and ward's religious beliefs. A Massachusetts statute provided that no minor may sell any magazine or periodical on a public street, and that no parent or guardian may permit a minor to work in violation of the law. The guardian, Mrs. Prince, argued that the statute infringed on both her parental rights guaranteed under the due process clause and her freedom of religion under the first amendment. The court acknowledged that parents have the right to give children religious training and encourage their children in religious practice…However, the court found that the family unit is not above government regulation even against the claim of religious liberty, and that neither parental rights or freedom of religion is beyond limitation. Where a child's safety is endangered, the state has the right to protect the child. Therefore, the court held that as long as Massachusetts had correctly determined that its labor statutes are necessary to protect children, the statutes are constitutionally valid (Kroller, 1990, p. 1072).

As the California Supreme Court (Molko vs. Holy Spirit Association 46 Cal.3d 1092; 252 Cal Rptr 122 (Cal, 1988), p. 122-156 ruled:

However, while religious belief is absolutely protected, religiously motivated conduct is not…conduct is subject to a balancing test, in which the importance of the state's interest is weighed against the severity of the burden imposed. That practice is not itself belief - it is conduct "subject to regulation for the protection of society" (p.132, 135).

Duron describes the solution to the religion problem as follows:

The courts are notoriously leery of appearing to be religiously biased, so discussion of your and your spouse's convictions will most likely be disallowed. Yet, you are very aware that, if custody goes to your spouse, you will be the object of a church-supported systematic effort by your ex-spouse to eliminate you as a parent on the basis that you are an unworthy associate for your children because you are not a Witness (1991, p.18).

She believes it is often preferable that religious bias "does not enter into courtroom, but we also need to be very aware that religious bias exists in many forms," and the Witnesses who "protest most vehemently about being persecuted often inflict their own cruel brand of prejudice and persecution upon others who do not share their beliefs" (Duron, 1991, p.18). She adds that Witnesses have fought vigorously in the courts for their right to practice their religion - yet when a person decides to exercise the same right and chooses a set of beliefs different from the Witnesses, "the ex-member is branded as an unfit parent." She concludes: "I do not like it when a church teaches my child that I am unsuitable to be her parent any longer because I do not subscribe to its beliefs." Although most courts will look at any factors that may affect the child, even the most favorable to the Watchtower, has ruled that:

A parent may not be denied custody on the basis of his or her religious practices unless there is probative evidence that those practices will adversely affect the mental or physical health of the child. Evidence that the child will not be permitted to participate in certain social or patriotic activities is not sufficient to prove possible harm. (Pater vs. Pater 1992, 63 Ohio St. 3d393).

The Psychological Concerns of a Child being raised a Witness.

A major concern that must be demonstrated in court is that it is very difficult for a child who is raised consistent with the Jehovah's Witness teachings to be socially well adjusted (Bergman, 1992a, 1992, 1991b, 1991a, 1989, 1986, 1976; Spencer, 1975; Harrison, 1978).

This problem is not necessarily the result of the individual prohibitions but the fact that the total sect of prohibitions seriously isolate children from their peers. The Watchtower forbids involvement in patriotic or nationalistic activities, is taught that voting is wrong, cannot celebrate any holidays, and believes that God requires that one die rather than accept most blood products (although some, as albumin, immune globulins, factor VIII, factor IX and circulating blood, are now acceptable - a fact which illustrates the blood donctrine's inconsistency). This experience will almost always casue the child serious social problems. Watchtower teaching that all non-Witnesses are not of God, but worldly are are serving Satan, and will soon be destroyed at Armageddon is likely to severely alienate the Witness child from both his or her peers and most all non-Witness relatives and family members. It is very difficult for a Witness child to have a normal relationship with people at school, and most Witnesses do not try because the Society teaches that such relationships are not proper.

Part of the problem is the fact that children tend to be cruel and viciously make fun of anyone who is different - whether for reasons such as physical handicap, or because of religious or cultural differences (Rosenberg, 1962). Jehovah's Witnesses are not uncommonly the brunt of cruel attacks by other children (Bergman, 1989). This only reinforces the child's perception that all non-Witnesses are worldly, evil persons to be avoided. In the long run, this experience can severely affect the child's general adjustment, self-perception, and ability to deal with the normal contingencies of life. The social maladjustment will likely follow the child in work, career, marriage and all other areas of life, adversely affecting him or her in almost all situations where involved, intimate social intercourse is required (Rogerson, 1972).

A major concern of non-Witness parents is that Witness children cannot involve themselves in activities which many people deem extremely important. These include normal after school social involvement, participation in sports and recreational activities such as dances or visits to museums that are part of such social activities and, especially, attending college. If the non-Witness father is a college graduate, he will likely believe that college is mandatory for success and happiness in a career. The rejection of these values is difficult for many fathers to deal with, and thus they will attempt to insure that their children have at least the same opportunities that they had.

The most serious affect of Witness teachings on children is alienation from the non-Witness father. This factor is critical in custody arguments because many jurisdictions have "Friendly parent" statutes which favor the parent most likely to insure frequent and continuing contact with the other parent (Korzec, 1991). In view of the disfellowship ostracism of ex-Witnesses, often the best legal tract for an attorney litigating a Witness case is to emphasize the deliberate parental alienation that active Witnesses must practice. Witnesses must "hate in the truest sense, which is to regard with extreme and active aversion, to consider as loathsome, odious, filthy, to detest" ex-member parents or a parent who opposes the Watchtower (Watchtower, October 1, 1952, p.599; June 15, 1980, pp. 8-22, July 15, 1961, p.420, Kandel, 1993, p.1).

In many of the cases the author worked with, the children openly admitted that they learned from the Kingdom Hall or their mother that opposing fathers are of Satan and not to be associated with, or at the least to be avoided. A common Watchtower response to this is to attempt to deny the disfellowshipping or shunning practice, which requires proof from the Watchtower publications that they must practice a most severe form of disfellowshipping as discussed below (See Paul vs. Watchtower No 85-4012 vs. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 1987).

An illustration of how the Witness teachings alienate children from the father involves the wife of a Jewish physician. When she started studying with the Witnesses, severe marital conflicts ensued, and not long thereafter she left him. She now lives with her two children in a separate residence, is a full-time unpaid Watchtower worker, and her former husband is required to support her and the children "in the lifestyle that they were accustomed to" before the divorce. The children, although still in elementary grades, are both extremely intelligent, and the mother has indoctrinated them against attending college. Further, they have heard much criticism of the medical profession at the Kingdom hall and consequently have made statements to their father such as "Daddy, you shouldn't be a doctor. Doctors are bad. They give blood transfusions and cause people to die and lose their everlasting life." His children were told that blood transfusions kill many people, and therefore doctors are bad. The father has in vain used his medical knowledge to explain this is absolutely false, noting that all medical procedures are imperfect, but that blood saves far more people than it kills. The children also told their father that, unless he became a Witness, he would soon be destroyed at Armageddon - and that only they and their mother were going to survive.

This father was absolutely furious with the Watchtower because they broke up his family, ruined his marriage, and alienated him not only from his wife, but also from his children. The court trial experience was an enormous disappointment and disillusionment for him. The court would not allow any of his expert witnesses to testify, and the judge ruled that he was not going to entertain any discussion of the wife's religious beliefs. Part of the reason may have been time constraints (the case was tried in a Los Angeles court, and a mere one day was available for each side because of the tight docket). When the trial and court process was completed (he lost custody and the wife received a huge settlement), he was almost as disillusioned with the court system as with the Witnesses.

Theocratic War Strategy; Why Witnesses lie in Court

Watchtower legal battles have "become so common [that] they offer its followers a pamphlet entitled 'Preparing for Child Custody Cases'" (Montgomery, 1992, p.14). The booklet openly advocates deception and advises Witnesses to refuse to honestly reveal the full situation to the court. Duron concludes that this Watchtower publication is,


designed for their internal use in helping their members prepare to discuss custody matters in divorce hearings [and] encourages Witness children, under oath, to present a distorted view of the opportunities that a Witness child has to assume a place in the larger world. An example of this is the comment in this publication that Witness children could become journalists…when attending a college is at best strongly discouraged, and at worst condemned by the Witnesses as a vehicle by which Witness children can lose their faith and be subjected to immoral association (1991, p.18).

The Watchtower legal department is now to be contacted in all custody cases involving Witnesses (Watchtower, 1989, 1991). Even if the Witness hires a secular attorney, the Society usually provides the Witness the advantage of extensive free-of-charge legal services and assistance of the Watchtower law staff (see Kingdom Ministry, Aug. 1992, Vol. 35, No. 8, p. 7). Since many of the Watchtower's full-time attorneys do nothing but defend Witness cases, they have an enormous amount of experience and expertise in this area, and know how to best deal with the courts. Deception, unfortunately, often does work, and in my experience many of the documents they file before the court contain untruths which can be proved such if one is given the opportunity. The Watchtower Society is also not above unscrupulous ad homin attacks, presenting wholly inaccurate evidence against the people who testify in these kinds of cases.

In an excellent summary of the 'Preparing for child custody cases' booklet Franz notes:

The brochure of more than 60 pages supplies guidelines to Witness parents, their children and their attorneys, as well as local elders and others who may testify, by reviewing difficult questions that may be presented by the opposing side and then offering suggested sample responses…Watchtower…[teaching]on honesty…[is to] respect the truth, [not]…willing to twist the truth a little bit, to get out of an inconvenient circumstance, or to get something we want…Compare that with some of the responses suggested in the Society's manual. Under "APPROACH BY WITNESS PARENT TO CROSS-EXAMINATION," we find this question…Will all Catholics (or others) be destroyed?…[and the suggested answer on page 12 is]: Jehovah makes those judgments, not we.

This sounds good, implies freedom from a dogmatic, judgmental attitude. Yet the Witness so responding knows that his organization's publications clearly teach that only those who are in association with "Jehovah's organization" will survive the "great tribulation" and that all those who fail to come to that organization face destruction. (1991, p.283).

Franz then evaluates the section, "DIRECT EXAMINATION AND RESPONSES FOR LOCAL ELDER," in which the booklet presents these questions and responses:

What view does [the Witness religion] take toward people of other religions? (Jesus taught love thy neighbor as self, includes all; we respect others' right to worship as they choose. [Do Witnesses] teach that young people should learn only about religion of Jehovah's Witnesses? (No. Consider following objective consideration of other religions in our publications.) [This is followed by a list of articles in the Watchtower magazines.] (pages 29-31).

In response to this section Franz notes:

Again, the responses imply an attitude of considerable tolerance [about religion]…Yet once more, the Witness elder responding knows that his religion teaches that "people of other religions" are all within "Babylon the Great," the empire of false religion, depicted as a "great harlot" in Scripture, that the worship they have chosen is considered unChristian and, if continuing in it, they face destruction. He also knows that Witnesses are urged not to have social relations with such "people of other religions," since such would have a "corrupting" effect, the only approved association with such being in "witnessing" to them in the hope of changing their religion. He knows that all the articles set out in the brochure's list emphasize negative aspects of the "other religions" discussed and that the organization discourages reading literature directly proceeding from other religions; only what it itself publishes about such religions is viewed as safe reading (1991, p. 284).

In summary, Franz concludes:

…people counseled to respond in this way must know that they are being asked to present an outlook that is very different from the one urged upon them in Watch Tower publications. If they are speaking the truth, without "twisting it a bit," they would not have to be told to speak differently from the way they would in a circuit assembly-or anywhere else for that matter (1991, p. 285).

Probably the major psychological concern is Witnesses who deceive themselves. Leaving the Witnesses is incredibly traumatic for many people - especially whose who are highly committed.

As Duron states:

I was a third generation Jehovah's Witness before my departure from that religion in 1975. I am married to a second generation former Witness. My husband and I, with a combined total of nearly sixty years of exposure to Witness beliefs and activities, have spend many hours, both separately and together, searching for rationality in our lives. The focus of that search, aside from trying to learn how to rebuild our lives after living through the intense spiritual upheaval of rethinking all of our moral, religious, social, and personal values and beliefs, was to deal rationally with "who gets the kid?" We had two children to think about (Duron, 1991, p. 16-17).


As Magnani states, "The Watchtower Society encourages its faithful to fudge their testimony" (quoted in Montgomery, 1992, p. 1

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