WICHITA FALLS, TX - Rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union recently asked a Texas appeals court to reverse a trial judge's order barring a lesbian mother from bringing her 5-year-old daughter to anything but a "main line" church.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the girl- identified in court papers as "WKG"-the ACLU said the order violates both the child's and mother's constitutional right to religious freedom and that the First Amendment specifically prohibits government officials from passing judgment on religious denominations.
The father, who is Jewish, and the mother, a Christian, had agreed in their 1998 divorce settlement to provide religious training to their daughter according to their respective faiths. But the father went to court when he learned of the mother's choice of the Metropolitan Community Church - a traditional Protestant denomination that emphasizes ministry to gays and lesbians.
In his ruling, Wichita County Judge Keith Nelson said that only "main line churches" could be used for the child's religious training, and that "such main line churches include the Catholic church, churches of the Protestant faith, such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Christian, Episcopalian, and the like as well as the Jewish Synagogue."
The ACLU said that the judge's view runs counter to fundamental principles of religious liberty. "Every mother-gay or straight- has the right to share her faith with her child without interference from the government," said Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
"In fact, in recent years, more and more so-called 'main line' churches have been welcoming gays and lesbians into their congregations," he added.
In its brief, the ACLU noted that the only basis on which the judge could have objected to the church was its mission of serving gay men and lesbians. "While the trial judge is entitled to his opinion as to whether this mission comports with orthodox religious doctrine, he is not entitled to translate those opinions into state action," the brief said.
The Metropolitan Community Church is not the only religious institution to be treated differently because it is not sufficiently "traditional" for some people's tastes. For many years, the Catholic Church was denied the label "mainline." Jehovah's Witnesses have also historically been subjected to discrimination by courts.
According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America, there is no universally accepted list of "main line churches" to which the trial court could refer and make a neutral determination.
The ACLU's brief is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/court/wkg_amicus.html.
The ACLU brief was drafted by Lesbian and Gay Rights Project Director Matt Coles and Associate Director Michael Adams, on behalf of the ACLU of Texas and the national ACLU. Assistance was provided by Judith Schaeffer of People for the American Way and Ayesha Khan and Steve Green of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The brief is also joined by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Local ACLU counsel is Richard Price of Ft. Worth.