Child baptisms spur legal dispute

Of all the things in the world to argue about …

Imagine a knock-down, drag-out fight between divorced parents over what age to baptize the children. I mean, really, who wants to read about that?

Me, me, me!

There, I admitted it. Please feel free to think less of me now.

Seriously, I was intrigued by a recent Associated Press story concerning a Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling in just such a case:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. –  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.

I kept reading, curious to learn more about the specific religious beliefs of each parent:

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.

As the story proceeds, it quotes legal experts who disagree on whether the case involves (a) judges “treading into the forbidden territory of deciding spiritual doctrine” or (b) a court simply “upholding the law when a parent is accused of flagrantly violating a court order.”

AP quotes the judge who wrote the ruling as well as attorneys who weigh in on the decision. (Interestingly, I recognized the name of the judge, Alan Highers, who is a leader among Churches of Christ, which believe in baptism at the age of accountability.)

While the story highlights legal sources, AP fails to include the voices of any ministers or religious leaders who might help readers understand the theological differences involved.

Curious about the case, I decided to read the full court ruling online.

The ruling notes that both the father and mother attended Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis before their divorce. The beliefs section of that church’s website voices concern about the general direction of the United Methodist denomination and stresses the local congregation’s “orthodox” beliefs.

After the divorce, the mother (and presumably the children) began attending Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, which is “an evangelical congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America,” according to its website.

So you’ve got two Memphis megachurches that — on the surface — each appear to adhere to certain traditional Christian beliefs. But where do they stand on baptizing children?

Two words not mentioned in the AP story figure prominently in the court decision: “infant baptism.” According to the court, infant baptism is required at Independent Presbyterian Church. So … who baptized the children? Did church leaders press the issue? Did they know about the father’s concerns? Would those concerns have mattered? Inquiring readers want to know.

Wait, there’s more in the legal papers:

Mother asserts that harm could not be shown because Father acknowledged that the Methodist Church “may” also believe in infant baptism, that the children did not fully comprehend the baptisms, that he had not contacted anyone in the Methodist Church to confirm his belief that the children could not be re-baptized, and that he believed infant baptism merely symbolized a parent’s commitment to raise a child in the church.

So what does Christ United Methodist Church teach concerning baptism? Again, the story makes no attempt to answer that question.

There appears to be a juicy religion story here. Unfortunately, AP tells only a small portion of it.

Photo via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    We got what I might call the “police blotter” version of the story – the who, what and when. The key question, the why, was skipped as you pointed out. I was going to write something about anthropologists studying quaint tribes and their curious customs, but anthropologists, real ones, want to understand the why – what beliefs drive people to act in a certain way. So I’m left with the sense that the story ran at all because someone thought it was a “weird” dispute and assumed everyone or everyone that counts feels that way. And “weird” does not need to be explained.

  • carl

    To me, the most interesting aspect of the story was found in this little footnote in the Court’s ruling.

    Mother contends that Father did not attend services regularly.

    The Methodist Church is a paedobaptist church. So why would the father object to having his children baptized? It should not have been a source of conflict at all. And then I read that little footnote. The first thought that came into my head was “Perhaps he is indifferent to religion or disliked conservative religion. Perhaps he thought having his kids baptized would be the equivalent to imposing a conservative religion on his kids, and that was the real source of the conflict.” I don’t know the answer. The existence of the question does not pre-judge the answer. But if I were responsible for covering this story, that is where I would start looking – at the level of commitment each parent exhibited towards the Christian faith.

    Did the father grow up in a liberal Methodist church? Was the choice of Christ UMC a compromise between a conservative Presbyterian and an indifferent or progressive Methodist? Would the father have preferred a more progressive Methodist church? Is that why he didn’t attend regularly (assuming the mother’s statement is true.) Of this I am sure. This disagreement over baptism is rooted in a much more fundamental conflict.


  • Dee

    Even more than the baptism, I’m curious to find out what Christ United Methodist Church (and Independent Presbyterian Church) teaches concerning divorce. Is divorce a non-issue for both those churches?

  • Jeff the Baptist

    “According to the court, infant baptism is required at Independent Presbyterian Church.”

    Required for what?  I grew up PCA and it was only required for church membership.  Since church membership also typically required you to be 13, it really didn’t matter.  If you weren’t baptized and wanted to join the church, you signed up for baptism at the same time.

  • John Penta

    I must admit to a parochial side concern:

    What if Mother was Catholic? According to canon law, anyway, baptism isn’t a right of the parents. It’s a right of the kid! How could you *possibly* enforce such an order, if the denomination believes in pedobaptism that strongly (just as, I suspect, the Presbyterians do) without it being an unlawful establishment of doctrine?

  • Dave

    Off topic but… I’m curious about the name of the PCA church involved, Independent Presbyterian Church. I’m sure there’s a reason for it which is perfectly understandable, but it strikes me as a very odd name for a presbyterian church. Perhaps the requirement for infants to be baptized, as opposed to urged or recommended, plays out of this sense of ‘independence.’

  • AuthenticBioethics

    The dimension I find especially intriguing is the way the court order required cooperation of the divorced couple over the religious upbringing of the children. Geesh, if they could agree on that sort of thing, they’d not likely have divorced. A court order in this case is like ordering they live together happily. Just because a court orders it does not make it a realistic thing to accomplish.

    Also, the court order effectively gives control over religious upbringing to whomever says No.

    It seems a strange place for the courts to do business.

    Overall, though, it’s refreshing to see the media missing the religious points of the stories they cover rather than making them.

  • Julia

    Sounds to me like this is yet another joint custody case where the major life decisions are to be decided by both parents and mom didn’t consult dad. All the rest is just an excuse to fight over the right to be consulted, regarless of dad’s religious committment. .

    [formerly did some family law]

  • MatthewJ

    We Methodists are paedobaptists. However, I have baptized probably half of any confirmation class I’ve ever been associated with because their parents wanted to let the kid decide when or if. I’ve attended both of those churches in the past (pre-seminary) and have a great respect for both.

  • sari

    My thought as well. Who baptized who when is secondary to the parents’ agreement to make joint decisions about important matters. Religious upbringing qualifies. While readers may be curious as to the theological underpinnings of baptism at different ages, the real issue is one parent’s lack of compliance.

    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 baptize


    This was an intermarriage from the beginning.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Sounds to me like this is yet another joint custody case where the major life decisions are to be decided by both parents and mom didn’t consult dad

    I think so. The interesting thing (if I remember my family law course from school) is that the common thing to be done in a situation like this involving a religious rite for a young child is for a judge to say that the rite shall not be performed until the child has reached an age at which they can choose it for themselves. Unfortunately, in this situation, to rule in such a manner would be effectively to take a the position of the father.

  • John Pack Lambert

    As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I was involved in teaching two children, ages 9 and 11 or so, whose mother had about 10 months before joined the LDS Church. We made sure before proceding to the baptism that she had the required custody to give approval without consent from their father. On the other hand, we did assume her and their step-father (who had been a member of the LDS Church for many years) knew the nature of the custody issue.

    Since the LDS Church does not allow baptism before age 8, this was a slightly different issue. However it would seem that where is as big an issue as when in the baptizing of children. I believe in this case the family had been Baptist, so this is a much larger theological change than Methodist verses Presbyterian, especially since we are talking about two groups that do not accept the validity of eachothers ordinances, as opposed to two that seem to accept the validity of what the other group does in most cases.

    If the custody is joint it seems that both parents need to agree on the matter. This is not quite the same as a case where one parent objects to the home schooling given by the other parent or something like that. The court did not unilaterally ban the baptism, but just requested that any major religious decisions be brought about by consensus. This is not nearly as bad as a ruling that says that a child can only be taken to services of a particular church. I have known converts to the LDS Church who were banned from bringing their children to the LDS Church due to such rules.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I found the “both parents are Christian’ as not a very insightful analysis. “Both parents are Protestant” would have set the parameters a lot better.

    Even that misses the point. The fact that neither parent is a Baptist is inportant.

    The supposed analogous question about being a Muslim or a Jew is even harder to buy. It is actually possible to raise a child as a Muslim and a Jew, at least having them attend services in both religions. The same is true of as a Jew or Muslim and a Catholic or Baptist. It might get confusing, but it is actually as a Catholic and Baptist that will be harder, just because they both in general hold meetings on Sunday. However you cannot both baptize a child and not baptize a child. The best analogy to that, although it is more extreme in some ways, is circumcision. Fortunantly circumcision debates are extremely rare in divorce cases.

    The failure to consult religious figures on the issue seems a glaring omission. There seems to have been no attempt to even talk to the paostors involved. This might come from the same attidude as Cafeteria Catholicism and “my peronal conscience”.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The article also failed to explore the religious freedom argument at play.

    I am not sure if fully works within Prysbeterian and Methodist theology, I would be more sure of it working if the mother was Catholic. In Catholic theology children who die before baptism will suffer. This doctrine has been somewhat moderated of late, but baptism at birth is still encoraged.

    This means, that to a Catholic mother not baptising her children is an act that puts them at risk if they are hit by a car while crossing the street tomorrow. This also may put sin on the shoulders of the mother.

    This is an angle that a religious voice could explain. I also have to wonder if the judges religious background makes him less likely to consider this issue.

    I see the contempt of court argument, but I also find it very troubling to threaten jail for a religious action. It is all the more problematic because most contempt of cour ruling give people options of ceasing and decisting or facing penalties. There is no way to cease the baptism.

    That said, the article does not give us much background. It is not even clear if the children were born before or after the marriage.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Well, the children were born after the marriage, which does not surprise me. The line about “consulting the minister when they were married” does not agree with the trial record. The consultation was at some point after the marriage, and possibly after the birth of the child.

    The minister of the Methodist Church did not give them an answer, but told them to pray on the matter. Thus in the court record there is clear evidence that this is not a dispute of theologies, or at least the Methodist theology does not ban this, but a case of personal interpretations.

    It seems it all boils down to whether baptising the children is a “major religious decision”. The fact that the plan provides for a mediator on the issue if the parents cannot agree is another detail that would have given more context to the initial article.

    The state is not saying “the father can be an absolute block” only “you should have gone through proceedure, and we feel a need to hold you accountable for failure to follow proceedure”.

  • Lori B.

    “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.”

    It would be interesting to know what type of minister they consulted and how the minister counseled them, since both the PCA and the UMC baptize infants. Sounds to me like the mom wanted the children baptized when she was married, and they couldn’t agree. If this is the case and the only way to have her children baptized was to defy the court order, then she will effectively go to jail for her religious convictions. There are so many good religious angles to this story. Too bad the reporter didn’t see them.

  • Martha

    What fascinates me is the father – he is described as Methodist, but his position seems to be much different; this bit jumped out at me: “he had not contacted anyone in the Methodist Church to confirm his belief that the children could not be re-baptized”.

    Now, generally, Methodists and Presbyterians both recognise the others’ baptism, they permit infant baptism, and they do not permit re-baptism. The father’s position sounds much more Baptist (believer’s baptism, baptism as an ordinance not a sacrament, can be re-baptised if it didn’t ‘take’ or was done wrongly – including being baptised as a child – the first time).

    Is he perhaps born-again or changed his beliefs since he was a member of a Methodist church? Because I don’t see why the row, unless it was about which denomination the children would be raised in, and it appears – from the story as we have it – that it’s the fact of baptism itself, not any denominational affiliation, that is the casus belli.

  • Pat

    The judge gave an unwise order. How can a civil judge distinguish a baptism from every other shower or swim the children have?

    The Mom properly engaged in civil disobedience, obeying God and not the unwise judge. God instructs believing parents to claim His covenant promises on behalf of their children, applying baptism as the symbol and seal of that covenant. Dad apparently “believes” is baptism but is using this as an opportunity to spat. The judge should not honor his petulance.

    The judge needs to recognize that this dispute is outside his jurisdiction and dismiss the complaint.

  • Matt

    Regarding the “requirement” for baptism in the PCA (of which I am a member), chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession says the following:

    IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.

    V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

    In other words, you really ought to do it, but salvation does not depend upon it.

  • Matt

    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.

    Actually, judging by the subsequent quote from Bobby’s friend Judge Highers, it seems to me that the Court of Appeals did not explicitly disagree with this argument from the mother, but simply refused to consider it. Judge Highers’ point seems to be that the mother is not before his court because of having appealed the court order, but simply because of having disobeyed it, and thus the Court of Appeals is no longer free to consider whether the lower judge decided wrongly but simply whether she should be tried for violating the court order.

    Did the mother attempt to appeal the court order before she violated it? Did the church leaders know about the legal situation? There are indeed many questions that this story could have addressed.

  • Sherry

    I looked on the UMC site and the appropriate age that the church says “The shortest answer is: as soon as possible and practical.”

    Our teaching on baptism is found in By Water and the Spirit. Here is the most relevant section to this question:

    “Understanding the practice as an authentic expression of how God works in our lives, The United Methodist Church strongly advocates the baptism of infants within the faith community: “Because the redeeming love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, extends to all persons and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age” (1992 Book of Discipline, par. 221)” (para. 226, 2008 Book of Discipline).

    Since the church says by “Spirit” then ABBA FATHER WOULD CONTROL THAT. It is stated in John 1:12-13 “not by the husbands will, but born of GOD”. Both churches believe in infant baptism. It is the ex-husband that stands in the way with perhaps the demand to be obeyed. The church leaders are not leading and teaching forgiveness as the ex- husband does not follow the commandments of CHRIST. I PRAY HE RECEIVES THE BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.