Can a Parent Who Violates a Court Order to Baptize a Child Be Sentenced to Jail?
For most parents living in the United States, the First Amendment protects both a parent’s right to freedom of religion as well as the right to raise a child according to preferred religious values. However, these constitutionally protected rights often collide with the best interests of the child standard used in child custody hearings.
A recent North Carolina case gained national attention for shining a spotlight on the unusual legal outcomes that can arise when there is a clash between these two competing interests in family law.
North Carolina Parent Baptizes Daughter and Is Sentenced to a Week in Jail
A North Carolina mother, Kendra Stocks, was sentenced to a week in jail after defying a court order by baptizing her two-year-old child. According to local news reports, the baptism occurred in 2016, but only after a North Carolina court granted the child’s father final decision-making authority on all legal custody decisions. Given the all-encompassing nature of this court order, decisions concerning religion were naturally included within the scope of the order.
Interestingly, both the mother and father had agreed on baptizing the child as well as raising the child as a Catholic, court documents revealed. However, the parents ultimately delayed the baptism due to disagreements over other matters pertaining to spirituality.
The legal consequences of the mother’s actions began in earnest once the father saw pictures of the child’s baptism surface on social media. It was then that the father, Paul Schaaf, notified the court of what took place. The notified judge had awarded the parties joint custody but awarded final decision-making authority to Mr. Schaaf just one day prior to the child’s baptism.
Since the mother neither notified the father of the baptism nor offered the father any chance to be involved in the ceremony itself, North Carolina District Court Judge Sean Smith ruled that the mother acted in “bad faith disregard.” As such, the judge issued a contempt order due to the mother’s intentional and willful violation of a court order.
The mother appealed this decision, but the order was upheld in February. However, the sentence was ultimately reduced from 10 days in jail to seven. Due to the case’s unusual nature, it is perhaps expected that national media outlets have picked up on the story.
Even so, the case is another reminder that court orders are to be obeyed. As the case’s final outcome has shown, baptizing a child is not a legal exception to the consequences of a willful or intentional court order violation. In Florida, for example, contempt can result in civil or even criminal penalties, depending on the facts of a defendant’s alleged court order violation.
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