A U. K. judge ruled that a ten-year-old girl is old enough to choose her own religion.
The girl’s family is Jewish, but when her parents divorced, her father converted to Christianity. Now she wants a Christian baptism, but her mother is against it, insisting that the father brainwashed their daughter and forced her into becoming a Christian.
Her parents divorced in 2010 and soon after the divorce, the father became a Christian, while the girl’s mother and all four grandparents stayed Jewish. Her parents share custody of her and her brother, who live with their father every other week. While at their father’s home, they attend church. When they live with their mother, they attend synagogue occasionally, but not regularly.
In November, the mother secretly filed for a court order forbidding their father from having the children baptized and confirmed Christians.
Before making his decision, the judge heard the evidence.
The father claimed the family had never been strictly observant Jews, and neither of his children grew up with any strong religious beliefs.
He said his daughter told him on the way back from an evangelical Christian festival that she had “experienced an encounter with God”. He added that he was initially skeptical as he thought she was just “on a high”. The father also said he was “unhappy” when the girl went behind his back to talk to a Sunday school teacher about being baptised.
The mother stated that the father attempted to prevent their daughter from practicing Judaism. The mother also said she told her daughter she wanted her to wait until she turned 16 before she became a baptized Christian.
The girls grandparents accused the father of forcing the girl to give up her Jewish heritage and a rabbi stated that it is “unnatural to their soul” to force a child to change religions.
The judge was scathing about these claims, saying that neither the mother nor the grandparents had made “any real effort” to consider what was best for the girl while the rabbi’s letter was made in “inflammatory terms without any supporting evidence”.
The judge said it was “wholly wrong” for the mother to go to court without discussing it with the father or his priest.
A letter from Rabbi Odom Brandman stated, “It was extremely disturbing to hear last night of the proposed baptism of the two young children named above [A and C] in clear contradiction to the wishes of their biological mother and all four grandparents – all of whom are proudly Jewish.”
The Rabbi further stated in his letter to the court:
"In Judaism we don't encourage conversion either way as it is unnatural for a person to change the religion they are born into and which thus is ingrained in their soul in a deep way. Although conversions are performed they must be worked at over a number of years when a real change can realistically take place. It is unfair to any child to put them under this pressure and to do something unnatural to their soul.
What was even more disturbing in this case was the fact that the children have been enrolled in a baptism program without the knowledge or consent of their mother…
A formal change of religion must be agreed by both parents. To me this does not stand well for the integrity, trustworthiness or responsibility of the father."
The father denied the accusations and said the statements were inaccurate. He then submitted a letter from his minister, which stated that the children were not in baptism classes. The minister also stated that he was concerned about accusations that the father forced his children to convert to Christianity.
The father belongs to a mainstream Anglican Church, according to the judge’s report. He also noted that the child understands that, at her age, she must declare her belief in God in order to receive baptism. After she declares her belief, she is then baptised and welcomed into the fellowship of the church.
However it is clear from the evidence that the father belongs to the Anglican Church and I accept his evidence and understanding of mainstream Anglican belief, which is the view of his church, that baptism is a ceremony in which the child is welcomed into the community of the church and starts his or her journey in faith. Through a process of instruction and the test of time that journey may, but does not inevitably, lead to a moment when the child, usually not before the child reaches the age of 16, has attained sufficient maturity and understanding of the Christian faith and chooses to become a full communicant member of the church by the ceremony of confirmation.
The judge also stated that he is aware that if the child chooses baptism into Christianity, the mother feels that such a decision is a rejection of her Jewish faith.
I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of the mother's belief which is clearly shared by the grandparents, but it is very clear to me that neither the mother nor the grandparents have made any real effort to see this from the point of view of what is best for the child or to engage in any investigation of what this step actually signifies as a matter of Jewish law or from the viewpoint of the Anglican church which C wishes to join.
The mother could not provide evidence that the child would receive consequences for choosing baptism and then later deciding that she wants to return to the Jewish faith. He also stated that the Rabbi, who mentioned consequences in his letter, could not provide any evidence such consequences in Jewish law.
My understanding of Jewish law is that a person who is born a Jew cannot deprive himself of his Jewish status. Christian baptism does not have any effect on that status. The purported act of conversion to Christianity simply has no legal effect and C would therefore be free to resume her Jewish faith at any time if she wished to do so.
While the mother has the care of C she receives no instruction in the Jewish faith, she does not attend the synagogue on any regular basis and only experiences minimal exposure to Jewish religious practises in the home. I fully accept that by virtue of being born of as Jewish mother C has acquired a Jewish heritage which she will never lose, but that is fundamentally different to her acquiring a Jewish faith. I do not accept the implied assertion in the letter from Rabbi Brandon that these are one and the same thing.
The judge rejected the assertion, by the mother and grandparents, that the father brainwashed his daughter into the Christian faith. He also believes that it is the child’s decision to attend church, learn more about Christianity, and be baptized.
The judge asked an officer to file a report on the child’s wishes concerning baptism into Christianity.
She visited C twice, once at the mother's home and once at the father's home. At the end of the visit to the father's home the officer took a short walk with C on her own to clarify her wishes and feelings. The report states that "C presents as a bright engaging child who is able to offer her own views and opinions. She is very clear in saying that she wishes to be baptised into the Christian faith. She is able to give some reasons for this and said she wishes to show her commitment to her community."
According to the officer, the child respects both her parents and although the officer did not have any recommendations, the officer did suggest that the child have access to information about both her parents’ religions, so that she could be fully informed about the implications of her choices. The officer then suggested the courts review the case in two years.
However, the officer noted that child wants to attend baptism classes now and does not wish to put off the decision.
She has given reasons for her decision which although not fully particularised in the report are not recorded as either immature or inadequate.
The judge claimed that he has no power to stop the girl’s baptism and dismissed the case, declaring she is mature enough to make her own decisions about baptism.
I am satisfied that C has already reached a sufficient degree of maturity and understanding to make a properly informed decision. In this respect I disagree with the Cafcass recommendation so I must explain why.
The first reason is that the author of the report does not herself make any recommendation. Since the report was specifically directed towards ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child I make no criticism of the author on that account. The suggestion for delay comes from her line Manager who has never herself met or spoken to the child. The second reason is that the report gives no reason why the decision should be delayed.
The third reason is that the report writer gives no indication of any concern on her part about the lack of maturity of the child. On the contrary she notes, as confirmed by the parents, that C is a bright articulate child who was able clearly to express her views and give reasons for them. The final reason is that C has maintained a consistent wish to be baptised for over ten months in the face of opposition from her mother and has been able to give age appropriate reasons for her decision, a factor which the line Manager does not appear to have taken into account.
The judge wrote the young girl a letter explaining his decision.
Judge John Platt said to her: “Sometimes parents simply cannot agree on what is best for their child, but they can’t both be right. Your father thinks it is right for you to be baptised as a Christian now. Your mother wants you to wait until you are older, so they have asked me to decide for them. That is my job.”
In the letter, made public alongside the ruling handed down at Romford County Court in Essex, he went on: “My job is to decide simply what is best for you and I have decided that the best thing for you is that you are allowed to start your baptism classes as soon as they can be arranged and that you are baptised as a Christian as soon as your minister feels you are ready.” But the judge stressed that it did not mean the girl would lose her Jewish heritage and concluded: “Finally, and this is the most important thing, both your mother and father will carry on loving you just as much whatever happens about your baptism.”
The judge stated that he asked the parties to read his letter to their daughter and after hearing the letter, the child asked if she could also attend church on Sundays she does not visit her father. In the judge’s mind, this showed a level of maturity.
I have decided that C's wishes to be baptised as a Christian must be respected and in my judgment the decision that she be allowed to attend church every Sunday is a natural consequence of that decision. There needs to be an order to that effect which will include C's attendance at her baptism course.
The full letter to the child from the judge is included at the end of the judge’s ruling.