Driver: Husband Ordered Breast-Feeding

New York Times/August 8, 2003

Ravenna, Ohio -- Clutching a bible as she testified, a woman told prosecutors she was following her husband's orders when she breast-fed their baby daughter while driving on the Ohio Turnpike.

Catherine Nicole Donkers said that for a short time she took both hands off the wheel to move the 7-month-old girl while the car drove in cruise control at 65 mph.

"I don't believe there was any form of recklessness," Donkers said Thursday in Portage County Municipal Court.

Donkers, 29, is representing herself in the trial scheduled to resume Friday with closing arguments. Judge Donald Martell could rule later in the day, at the earliest.

Donkers is charged with driving without a license, along with several other misdemeanors, the most severe being child endangerment. A conviction carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The mother and her husband, Brad Lee Barnhill, belong to a religion they say requires Barnhill to be responsible for punishing Donkers. It also disagrees with driver's license and other laws.

Donkers testified that she had stopped earlier on May 8 at a highway rest stop and fed cereal to the baby her father said was named Seren Barnhill. Donkers said she realized the baby was still hungry after she got back on the road, headed to Michigan from Pennsylvania.

"I called my husband, and he directed me to continue on, to drive to Michigan and nurse my child in the car," Donkers said.

"All of her skin was completely covered to provide me the privacy I felt I might need if any passers-by were curious," she said. "It certainly isn't a primary choice as a form of feeding my child. I certainly had no intent to harm my child. I never would."

Donkers and Barnhill both refused to take an oath before testifying because of their religious beliefs. Both signed written statements swearing to tell the truth.

The couple -- who lack a marriage license but claim to be married -- belong to the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, which has a history of challenging the government.

The organization, which pledges allegiance to Jesus Christ, was founded in Henderson, Nev., in the 1990s. Barnhill says he is a minister in the fellowship with 650 followers.

In May, state police pursued Donkers for several miles on the northeast Ohio highway before she stopped. She insisted on speaking to her husband before cooperating.

Testimony from a state trooper said Donkers had what appeared to be a homemade Pennsylvania identification card instead of a driver's license.

Barnhill said the couple was living temporarily in Pittsburgh for work, but Donkers was a resident of Livonia, Mich., when arrested. Child restraint laws in Michigan exempt nursing babies, which the couple says should clear Donkers.

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