Family law issues are often highly emotional and heated, but they don’t usually result in jail time. Stephanie or Stacy Miller, however, spent a night in prison after a Tennessee judge found her in contempt of court for allowing her 12 year old son, Caleb Miller, to be baptized without his father’s permission.
This seeming excess of judicial authority began two years ago, when Stacy and Stephen Miller finalized their divorce. Their divorce agreement included a promise not to make decisions about their son’s religious upbringing without the consent of the other.
In 2011, Caleb agreed to be baptized at his mother’s church. Although his father attended the ceremony, Stephen Miller insists that the baptism occurred without his authorization. Judge Swann, the judge in charge of the case, noted that Stacy Miller, the son’s mother, had failed to respond to mediation attempts prior to the ceremony and handed her a ten day jail sentence, reduced to one day after the criminal contempt of court charges were dropped, though the civil contempt charge remained. Caleb Miller watched as his mother was lead to the local jailhouse in handcuffs due to the claim made by his father.
On its face, the story seems like judicial over-extension. Although family law typically tries to respect both parties in a divorce, the best interests of the children govern any case involving a child. It is difficult to agree that a child watching his mother go to jail through his father’s actions be in the child’s best interest. Stephen Miller has made remarks which display a certain amount of disdain for his ex-wife’s church. The court has no right to enforce that opinion, especially if that opinion might not be in the child’s best interest. It would be a violation of the Federal Constitution’s establishment clause, a clause forbidding the government from favoring one religion over another. Furthermore, Caleb, like all children, is a person with desires and wishes independent of his parents. If Caleb consented to the baptism, then his independent wishes should override any contractual agreement which treats him like a commodity. The child should know what is best for himself, not his parents and certainly not a judge.
There are, however, other factors to consider. Each parent belongs to a different church and wishes to see Caleb make the best possible decision between the two institutions. Although it is true that enforcement of the father’s view based on its religious roots would be a violation of the Constitution, it would also be a violation of the same document and the same clause if the court enforced the mother’s choice. The court enforcing Caleb’s baptism looks like an establishment of religion just as much as opposing the baptism would be. The judiciary, however, can enforce a violation of contract agreement, which is exactly what Judge Swann did. The outcome might be the same as an endorsement of the father’s views, but for completely different reasons. Ruling on the contractual aspect of the conflict is the only legal ruling. Moreover, it is the only fair ruling as the law cannot make a distinction between different churches.
As to Caleb Miller’s independent interests, it is true that he is a person separate from his parents and that the law should treat him as such. However, Caleb Miller is still a minor. Although some minors are incredibly mature for their age, society recognizes that some activities should not be undertaken until a certain age for mental maturity to develop in order for proper consent to be established.
I don’t share the Miller’s sense of religious devotion, but I will trust that a commitment to God is an important commitment and a heavy responsibility. Given this context, baptism might be comparable to marriage, a ritual which, in Tennessee, cannot be undertaken by a minor until the age of sixteen. Even at sixteen, however, parental consent is required until the age of twenty-one.
Comparing baptism to marriage might seem like a stretch, but the emphasis the Millers place on baptism makes the comparison significant if not valid. If Tennessee doesn’t permit Caleb Miller at his age to commit his life to another person, then it is doubtful that Tennessee should allow Caleb Miller to commit to a god on his own. Caleb Miller, as a minor, cannot make such important decisions on his own. His parents, his father as well as his mother, represent his best interests. Although the divorce agreement fractured the marriage of his parents, it still governs the parent’s conduct towards their child. Judge Swann may not gain any popularity for his decision regarding Caleb Miller and his parents, but it was a necessary one for an impartial representative of the law to make.