Court rules on religious rights of divorced parents

Associated Press

Boston -- Divorced parents of different faiths can be prohibited from teaching their religious beliefs to their children if it would harm them, the state Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

The 6-0 decision Tuesday upheld a probate court ruling that barred the father from taking his children to church's services or enrolling them in Sunday school. The judge said the father tried to push his faith on the children and was negative about his former wife's faith.

The father, Jeffrey P. Kendall, is a member of the fundamentalist Boston Church of Christ. The mother, Barbara Kendall, is an Orthodox Jew. The children, aged 4, 6 and 9, are being raised by the mother as Orthodox Jews and she argued they would be forced to learn teachings that contradict her religion.

The high court justices called it a "close question" but said the state and U.S. constitutions permit limitations on individual liberties if there is a compelling interest.

"Promoting the best interests of the children is an interest sufficiently compelling to impose a burden on the (father's) right to practice religion and his parental rights to determine the religious upbringing of his children," wrote Justice Neil Lynch.

The mother's lawyer, David Cherny, wrote that the children "are experiencing emotional distress because of the exposure to Jeff's religion, which teaches them that in order to be 'saved' they must accept Jesus Christ.

"These teachings contradict their Jewish ethnicity, force them to regard their mother as someone doomed to hell and place them in the unenviable position of having to regard choosing between religions as choosing between parents."

The father's lawyer, Michael Greco, said he may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Greco said the father wanted to teach his children about his religion but not proselytize them.

"He is not trying to convert them to Christianity or to prevent them from developing Jewish identities," Greco said. "He wanted the opportunity to instill important moral values at an early age. He's been deprived of that opportunity."

Kendall was nominally a Catholic when he married Barbara Zeitler, a mildly observant Reform Jew in 1988. Their children followed Jewish religious practices.

Three years later, Kendall joined the Boston Church of Christ, which takes a more literal interpretation of the Bible.

Ms. Kendall converted to the more conservative Orthodox Judaism in 1994 and began raising the children in that faith. The religious differences led to the divorce.

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