Ball v. Ball (12/10/2020)
Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a family court may not decide whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church, is “Christian.”
After the divorce, the father began attending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church, with the children. The mother asserted in family court that this, along with other matters, violated the parenting plan. The court interpreted the parenting plan and determined that the competing provisions regarding religious education could only be read to allow the children to attend a “Christian” church. The court proceeded to hold a hearing to determine whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “Christian.” At the hearing, the court allowed a youth ministry leader from the mother’s church to testify on why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not “Christian.” The court ultimately found that father violated the parenting plan, including because “Mormonism does not fall within the confines of [the] Christian faith.”
The Court of Appeals reversed the family court’s order regarding religious education, holding that provisions in the parenting plan concerning religious education use the word “may” and are therefore only permissive—meaning that the parents may attend any church with the children and may choose to have the children instructed in the “Christian” faith or in any other faith.
The Court of Appeals further held that the family court violated the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment by improperly delving into ecclesiastical matters and by failing to base its decisions on neutral principles of law. The Court of Appeals noted that in a proper case, a court can enforce even religious provisions in parenting plans, but parents must be clear in their expectations so that courts are not tempted to resolve religious questions that they constitutionally cannot decide.
Judge McMurdie authored the opinion in which Judge Cruz joined. Judge Morse joined in the portions of the opinion reversing the family court’s order regarding religious education but declined to join in the discussion of the constitutional issues.