Religious DivideDeborah Baxtrom May/June 2000 Evangelist John Wayne "punkin" Brown picked up the three-foot yellow timber rattlesnake while delivering one of his raucous sermons in Alabama in 1998.
"They say it won't bite," Brown bellowed as the rattler twisted itself into the shape of a V. "If it won't bite, there ain't no sense in being scared." But he had been bitten 22 times during his 18-year career as a "snake-handling" pastor of Southern Pentecostal churches.
"The Lord told me it was all right," Brown continued. "The Lord said it would be all right." But he knew things didn't always turn out "all right." His wife, Melinda, had been fatally bitten by a rattlesnake at a revival three years earlier.
Then, as the preacher hopped across the stage, history repeated itself. The rattler struck, biting Brown on his left middle finger. The preacher paid little attention to the bite, and it took a while for the congregation to grasp the sad situation unfolding before them.
"God's still God, no matter what comes," said Brown, his voice fading. A woman in the congregation screamed, and other members anxiously mopped the dying preacher's forehead. "No matter what else, God's still God." Ten minutes later Brown was dead, and his five young children had become orphans.
Brown had been given custody of his children after his wife's death. But custody had been granted under two conditions-that he would agree not to keep poisonous snakes in his house, and that the children would not be allowed to attend snake-handling services. He defied those orders, sincerely believing he was doing God's will, even though the children had been known to wake up screaming from terrifying nightmares about snakes.
While their father's death was a devastating tragedy, it offered an opportunity for the children to be freed from exposure to dangerous vipers. Instead they became pawns in a custody battle between their grandparents. While their maternal grandmother wanted to keep them as far away from snakes as possible, their paternal grandparents ran a snake-handling church of their own.
This case presented unusual circumstances. Most people would probably agree that the Brown children would be best placed in the custody of a grandparent who would keep them away from poisonous serpents. Virtually every U.S. court makes the child's best interests, particularly personal safety, the top priority when deciding child custody cases. But what if a judge or jury had a bias against an unpopular or misunderstood religion? Might a court find that being raised in a particular faith was not in the child's "best interests," possibly even dangerous?
Personal and societal prejudices often come into play in custody battles. Court decisions in cases involving religion have varied widely, depending upon differing state laws and the personal opinions of judges and jurors.
A Florida case illustrates just how subjective these matters can be. Rita and Ignacio Mendez both considered themselves Catholics when they married. Neither actively participated in the Catholic religion, yet their marriage was severely disrupted when Rita later became a practicing Jehovah's Witness. When she refused to give up her religion, Ignacio sued for divorce and custody of the couple's daughter, Rebecca.
Ignacio argued that it was not in Rebecca's best interests to be raised as a Jehovah's Witness, because Witnesses were "totally different" and "against society." No one involved in the case disputed the fact that Rebecca was far more attached to Rita than to Ignacio, or that the child would be traumatized if she could not continue living with her mother. Expert witnesses even testified that Ignacio would not be a desirable custodial parent because his job required him to travel frequently, and he was planning to move in with his mother and sisters so they could take care of Rebecca if he were awarded custody.
There was little doubt that under "normal" circumstances, Rita would probably have been awarded custody of Rebecca, but in the end, the court's decision was to grant custody to Ignacio.
The testimony of two psychologists played a large role in determining this outcome. One witness, Dr. Richard Greenbaum, had this to say: "As a Jehovah's Witness, she [Rebecca] would have difficulty in dealing with the different values as they apply socially, in terms of school and religious holidays, which are not perceived as religious, exclusively by the children, such as Christmas and in terms of saluting the flag and things of that nature."
The second psychologist, Dr. Eli Levy, testified that he would not recommend Ignacio as a custodial parent. However, he also said that "living in this society, she [Rebecca] needs to adapt herself to the mainstream of culture. She is growing up, and it is not a country of Jehovah's Witnesses. If the majority of the country were Jehovah's Witnesses, we would not have any problem, except for physically, but, as far as-I am not making the statement because she is a Jehovah's Witness per se, but the philosophy of practicing the religion does not allow Rebecca to benefit and be safeguarded in living in this culture. I believe that being raised a Jehovah's Witness would not be in the best interest of the child, given the fact that the principles, the way I understand them, do not fit in the Western way of life in this society."
Rita later appealed the trial court's decision, but the appellate court stated that the trial court did indeed have the right to consider the conflicting religious beliefs of the parents in child custody cases. They considered the Mendez case "quite ordinary." Still, three of the nine judges involved in the case dissented. Judge Baskin's dissent stated that "what does emerge from the record is a demonstration of the experts' personal biases against the mother's religion. Their disdain for the mother's religion induced them to speculate as to the possibility of harm to the child in the future even though no evidence of harm existed