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Mother faces contempt, jail for baptizing children

A Shelby County mother faces contempt-of-court charges and possible jail time for baptizing her two children without the knowledge or consent of her ex-husband.

This week the Tennessee Court of Appeals said Lauren Jarrell must face a criminal contempt hearing for violating a court order that said major decisions regarding the religious upbringing of her two children should be made jointly with the children's father.

Both parents are Christian. Emmett Blake Jarrell, the father, is a member of the United Methodist Church, and she's a Presbyterian.

The father, according to court records, thought the children should be baptized when they are older and better able to understand the significance of the baptismal ceremony. The couple, according to court records, had even consulted a minister when they were married because they couldn't agree what age was best for the kids to be baptized. Records show the children will be 5 and 7 next month.

"Obviously she knew that the father did not want the children baptized at that age and she did that without telling him," Memphis attorney Any Amundsen, who is not involved in the case, said of the mother. "She violated the court order."

The Court of Appeals decision sides with the father, who had asked that his ex-wife be convicted of criminal contempt after discovering that she baptized the kids against his wishes.

A lower court has already found the mother in contempt of court. The appellate court decision overturned that decision and said criminal contempt proceedings are more appropriate because the mother can't undo the baptisms.

Legal experts disagree on whether the appellate court decision is treading into the forbidden territory of deciding spiritual doctrine or is just upholding the law when a parent is accused of flagrantly violating a court order.

The parents could not be reached for comment. Their attorneys did not return calls to The Associated Press.

Court records show that the mother argued that it was wrong for the lower court to find her in contempt it was tantamount to preferring the father's religious views on baptism over hers.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed.

"Mother is correct that courts `must maintain strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents' and they may not `prefer the religious views of one parent over another unless one parent's religious beliefs and practices threaten the health and well-being of the child," Judge Alan E. Highers wrote. "However, simply put, this is not a religious dispute." Highers said the court is only being asked to determine whether the mother can be found in contempt for failing to follow the court order.

Nashville attorney Helen Rogers says the courts ought to stay away from these kinds of decisions.

"How would a court decide between baptizing a Presbyterian and a Methodist or a Catholic," Rogers asked. She wondered whether a court could step in and order the child of a Muslim and a Jew to attend a synagogue or a mosque. The problem, she said, is that the standard parenting plan in Tennessee orders many parents to mediation if they can't jointly decide on major decisions involving religious upbringing. If they can't agree even after mediation, she said, it ultimately means that a court has to decide.

"The bigger kind of global look at this is should religious decision-making be a private matter or should it be something that a court orders to begin with," Rogers asked.

However, Amundsen said the courts are only following state law, which says the courts have to consider religious upbringing when it comes to parental decision making.

Both attorneys said it's not unusual for parents to disagree on religious upbringing.

If the mother is convicted, she could face up to 20 days in jail and a $100 fine.

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