Wiccan Convert Faces Custody Battle in Texas

Wiccan Convert Faces Custody Battle in Texas March 15, 2012

The Fox affiliate in Houston, Texas reports on the case of Sylvia Ruiz, a mother of three who’s currently in divorce proceedings, and is having custody of her children challenged on religious grounds.

Sylvia Ruiz

“Silvia accuses family court of scrutinizing her more because of her religious choice. That’s why, without notice, she fired her attorney on the spot, asked Judge Robert Newey to recuse himself, and tried to fire her children’s attorney. “I’ve been a good mother and they have nothing to put on me, some spot on my name as a mother,” she said. […]  Sylvia has a Wiccan shop and make-shift temple in the back of their Spring Branch home. Martin took us inside and there were pentagrams, oils, powders, bones and an assortment of items I couldn’t describe. “Crazy people come here to see her and my kids are here and that’s what I don’t like,” he said.”

Martin Ruiz says that Sylvia conducts nude rituals, and that he doesn’t want his children exposed to that. Sylvia, in turn, accuses Martin of being an absentee parent who has barely spent any time with his family. You can watch the entire video report, embedded below.

I’ve written in depth about the tendency for one’s Pagan religion being used against a parent in custody cases, painting Wicca and other faiths as exotic and dangerous belief systems that might corrupt young children. The mere accusation of adherence to Wicca or modern Paganism is sometimes enough to affect a custody case. In my interview last year with Texas resident Jen Lepp, founder of the Pagan-owned Internet hosting company DrakNet (now owned by A Small Orange), she made it clear that the company’s move to “de-Pagan” itself came because of pressures resulting from a custody case.

“The fourth year I owned DrakNet, my husband and I got a divorce, and the following year (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into), we entered into a highly acrimonious custody battle. The suit stated outright in it’s initial filing that the basis was the fact that I was Pagan. I hired an attorney who dismissed it as a concern, stating my religion could not be used against me. While I have no doubt the attorney believed that when he told me, he was wrong and his objection was overruled. The county this lawsuit was in was extremely right-leaning, and the Judge in the case relieved me of custody temporarily while my beliefs and their affect on my ability to parent was investigated. Those I knew in the community did offer to rush to my defense, have protests on the courthouse lawn, call the press, and make the case into a circus, but I strongly felt then, as I do now, that a child cannot choose to be at the center of a public controversy. Though I was very, very careful in my answers not to establish any precedent or disclaim or lie about anything I was in the final trial, once I fought back and defended myself and won, I chose not to tempt fate a second time and I left Paganism so that it could not be used against me again.”

Lepp’s experience is in no way unique, and Pagan parents heading back into the closet for the benefit of their children has become a widely acknowledged phenomenon in our interlocking communities. While there have been some promising rulings recently on the issue of religion in custody cases, Pagan parents still often face an uphill struggle when one parent decides to make an issue of their beliefs, resulting in damaging fights that can last years. It’s a tactic that’s even been tried on the rich and famous, though not with the desired results.

The standard for awarding custody due to religion has to rely on obvious religiously-motivated abuse and harm that can be proven, not ominous intimations of ritual “nudity” or strange altars. The courts should not be in the business of deciding what religion is better for a child in custody cases if no abuse or mistreatment can be proven. In addition to fighting for stronger legal precedents to prevent judicial value judgments, other responses to the problem of parents using religion against each other in custody battles is increased mandatory mediation sessions, and giving greater agency to the children in these cases. A cocktail of all three could provide a good inoculation against religious discrimination in the courtroom. In the meantime, many Pagans, and other adherents to minority religions, still worry about revealing too much about their faith, lest it be used against them should a marriage fall apart. If you are a Pagan parent worried about custody, I suggest contacting the Lady Liberty League for help and advice. For those who can speak out, becoming more visible and understood is key in demolishing stereotypes about our faiths.

Finally, sunlight in these cases can be a good disinfectant. The more public scrutiny given to custody cases where Pagan religion is being used as a factor, the less likely it is a judge might decide to insert his personal prejudices. I’ll keep you appraised on any updates on this case, as will PNC-Texas, who are now following this story.

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70 responses to “Wiccan Convert Faces Custody Battle in Texas”

  1.  I lament the pain and trouble that parents need to go through in these proceedings.  I come from a divorced home, and while it wasn’t on the grounds of religion, I could not dare to think about how painful it is to be forced between your family and your religion.  I wish we had a society where this won’t be a big deal, where spiteful children will not try to pick apart other people’s lives out of vindictiveness.

    Strength to the people who have to go through this, and strength to those who will inevitably come in the future. 

  2. A hardcore counter-suit might be in order.  Trouble is it makes it acrimonious for the children involved.

  3. The Southern Poverty Law Center may be something to contact in cases like these. You don’t see children ripped away from Christian parents, and look what the Christians are trying to do to women’s rights now! Look at that Norwegian terrorist! Read the Bible, for god’s sake!

  4. Blessed Be!! Will be praying for the children. You can’t stop us by taking our children. Hang in there Sylvia. My son came to me as soon as he was old enough. He is still with me today!! The blind hatred of others will be their karma to pay in the end. And it harm none…so mote it be!

  5. I am currently fighting a custody case with children’s services. They didn’t even consider removing my children until they found out I was pagan. As soon as the caseworker found out I was pagan, she filed papers to get protective orders and have them removed. I now not only don’t have my children, but they are talking adopting them out. I can’t even begin to explain the damage this has done not only to me, but to my children.

  6.  What state do you live in, please?

    Have you contacted any religious civil liberties organizations?

  7. And yet still this is done with the same mentality that rules rape cases. All the focus is on her instead of the absentee father. Saying once again “Don’t be Pagan.” instead of “Don’t discriminate.” One more reason in a long list of reasons NOT to live or attempt raising children in the USA.

  8. Also where is Lady Liberty League on this? Or the ACLU? What can we as Pagans do to better support LLL so they can come to the aid of Pagans in situations like these?

  9. I persons religion should have no bearing in legal issues. That includes divorce and custody hearings. It goes against a persons constitutional right to practice the religion of their choice without reproach from public (legal) entities. There are organizations whose sole purpose is to uphold the Bill of Rights and enforce through legal forums those rights for anyone who is under persecution.

  10. I currently work as a legal aide in a law firm that handles primarily family cases like these, and I’ve not yet seen one in which religion was a significant issue (except minor variations on holiday visitations interfering with holiday church services), but I am very very cautious in this setting of revealing my own religion. When one works in this setting, you quickly get used to seeing a lot of really dysfunctional parental relationships and a lot of spitefully motivated DHHS complaints. It’s enough to make you right paranoid.

    My best wishes to Sylvia Ruiz and her children. I hope they’re getting all the help they need and that the courts will make the RIGHT decision, rather than the REACTIVE one, no matter what that decision is.

  11. Allowing children greater agency is great but doesn’t do much when a (for example) Christian parent brainwashes a child into believing the other, (for example) Pagan parent is evil and wrong.

  12. Also true, citing precedent (as well as the Constitution for that matter) is something that should be heavily leaned on for any case like this…

    I just see a potential problem with that as a factor as my husband is dealing with that with his ex and son, she is continually feeding my step son garbage that “his father worships Satan” and the like. Kids, wanting to please both parents, just end up confused. But these days it seems to be more about the parents rights than the childs in general anyways, which is sad.

    Sylvia seems to have her wits about her and the verve to see it through to the right conclusion. I love seeing that. : )

  13. I’ve seen similar altar/shrine set-ups in Catholic Mexican, Filipino, and Polish homes, particularly around All Saint’s/All Soul’s day you’ll see this for family members. Sylvia is not doing anything unusual or particularly Wiccan-esque, except with maybe the addition of the pentagram symbol instead of a crucifix.

    Her ex is either sheltered/ignorant, or he knows it and is simply trying to mess with the ignorant judge to get his way. I’m guessing the judge is a Protestant of some sort, so he and Faux news would be dramatic over seeing/hearing about her house.

    I hope this load of bs works out in her favor.

  14. But even one of the taglines in that video drives me batty “Witch or good mother?” As if you can only be one or the other. Not-so-subtle bias…

  15. What is needed is a Supreme Court decision taking any consideration of religion out of these cases.

  16. Lucky for me , none of this stuff came up when i divorced my ex .  .I voluntarily paid child support , and got equal custody.All we can do is wish her the best of luck. From what i saw the news report was as fairly balanced as any i’ve seen in a situation like this . I heard the mother say her ex’s lawyer and  her ex called her a witch, not the media .And from what she said he has been an absentee father for most of the children lives , was not around much. This  should easily end in her favor.Our [The US] constitution guarantees no religious bias.  This shouldn’t even be an issue , but so it goes in our puritanical semi backwards society, especialy in a place like Texas.Deep inside the bible belt.   Kilm

  17. This is the dangers of believing that a Wiccan can be safely married and live in harmony with a christian. I know many who are doing it but how many times have we all heard and witnessed this same case time and time again. Personally I would counter argue that he was drinking blood to gain eternal life and worshipping death as life’s goal… and that is not something I would want my children exposed to.

    I pray this woman is only saying she left it for the media’s sake.

  18. “From what i saw the news report was as fairly balanced as any i’ve seen in a situation like this .”

    I adamantly disagree. As someone who works in the media, and one who worked for Dow Jones even before Uncle Rupert Murdoch bought it,  the comment that the reporter made about “things I couldn’t even begin to describe”, was a major faux pas on his part, bordering on unethical. ‘ Fair and balanced’ infers at the very least, the reporter keeping themselves out of the story and focusing on the facts only, letting the public do with the information what they will. It is not the reporter’s job to ‘try’ the case in the court of public opinion. This is exactly why News Corp has got such a sordid reputation – it’s well deserved. This story and how it was handled had an obvious bent / slant which is not at all surprising, but no less unfortunate in an era where religious “tolerance” in America is supposed to mean something.

     Santeria, Voudou and so many other spiritual shops are the norm in Latino communities. That her religious practices are being used as a wedge to gain custody is just sad. My heart and prayers goes out to Silvia Ruiz and her children for the situation.

  19. Her altar had pentagrams, oils, and bones on it?  Has the reporter ever seriously *looked* at a traditional Catholic altar which must include the “relics” (read actual body parts) of canonized martyrs in the cavity or sepulchrum of the altar?

    Why is it okay for the Catholic Church to incorporate the body parts of dead people into its altars, but is considered weird, creepy and/or potentially “dangerous” when another religion does so?

    Another example of hypocrisy in action.

  20. not sure about how correct the reporting was though

    is the mom really wiccan?

    i recognized la santisima muerte and other items popular in curanderismo and brujeria

    i wonder if she actually practices brujeria mexicana and the reporters
    decided to use the term wicca because it is a more popular and safer

    not that it really matters but,  you know…

  21. I’d be far less concerned about exposing my kid to ritual nudity than to ritual cannibalism, institutionalized ignorance, support for pedophilia and hatred of anyone who disagrees.

  22. A lot of Pagan civil liberties would benefit from a Supreme Court decision specifically sheltering Paganism under the First Amendment. Alas, cases like this are almost always settled, and that’s in the best of outcomes. Nothing to reach up the appeals chain to the SCOTUS.

  23. Nice to see that FOX being unbias. [snark intended]  I work in a shop that has to massage tables.  Yes, I undress for a massage.  That doesn’t mean I’m out in the public.  I wonder if the husband has every actually SEEN people in the shop naked while his children are there.  Doubtful. 
    It was nice that the judge actually did step down.

  24. If you stick it out to the very end of the Faux News clip you’ll hear that the judge in the Ruiz case actually did recuse himself and step down.

  25. I didn’t hear the term “Wicca” in the whole report. They acted as though “Wiccan” was the name of both the religion and the practitioners, which… honestly, news outlets CONSISTENTLY misuse “Wicca” and “Wiccan” (Remember Carole Smith’s complaint against the TSA? The officials in that instance constantly referred to her as “a Wicca”). It’s disheartening that they can’t even be arsed to get the most basic terminology right, so why should they be trusted to report anything fairly. 

    Drives me crazy. And I’m not even Wiccan.

  26. With the increase in interfaith marriages, religion has, not surprisingly, become more of an issue in child custody cases. The rise in Pagan custody cases isn’t necessarily a sign that we are being targeted for discrimination but that our numbers are growing. And rather than retreat into hiding, in many cases, the best antidote for eradicating fear and distortions of our religion is to be open about what we believe and what we do. For many judges and GALs, let alone your own attorney (there aren’t that many of us Pagan attorneys out there), you may be the first Pagan they’ve met and treating their questions as genuine curiosity rather than with distrust goes a long way. Likewise, acting defensive and guarded may lead them to wonder what you’re hiding and feeds into the stereotypical fears. 

    It’s a tough act for courts to achieve balance between a child’s best interest (which is determined through various factors) and a parent’s religious liberties. But just as the trend has been for joint parenting and more involvement by the non-custodial parent, exposure to both parents religions is becoming the norm absent actual (or in a few states a risk of) harm to the child. 

    By their very nature, custody cases can highly emotional. This sensationalistic fox clip just amplifies it.  There must be more to the story than what was reported.


  27. “It’s disheartening that they can’t even be arsed to get the most
    basic terminology right, so why should they be trusted to report
    anything fairly. ”

    i agree, nothing against wicca or wiccans but still…
    i rather hear about the diversity of magical religions through the differing terminologies instead of wicca being the default term for all..

    on the other side, thank goodness they didnt go for the popular myth of santisima muerte + mexican drug dealer connection.. that would have been something else

  28.  You should contact Lady Liberty league ASAP.  In the meantime, I’ll be praying for you, hon.

  29.  I think it boils more down to not marrying a jerk.  Not Wiccan, but I’m married to a Christian and I can’t even imagine him doing that.  He’s always been one of my staunchest defenders and really values religious diversity and freedom.  He’s never been a bigot or a fundie and I think that makes a huge difference.  So yeah, if you’re dating someone who shows even the slightest bit of ignorance or xenophobia, run like hell.

  30. I’m glad Sylvia Ruiz is being a tough cookie and not letting the courts or her ex push her around.  She’ll need to be tough through this. I’ll be praying for her.

  31.  Possible, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has – at least in the not to distant past – had a fairly jaundiced view of paganism. Astaru was (is?) linked in their minds with the worst of the white supremacists. Funny that they don’t link Protestant Christianity with the worst of the white supremacists, or the Klan. (Every Klan member was and is a white Protestant Christian.)

    It is that old double standard. And probably stems from their formation in the heart of the bible belt.

  32. All the more reason for videotaping rituals and de-mystifying them to the mainstream.  I’d suggest looking a few up on You Tube or Witch School, and showing them to court officers, social workers and anyone who objects to Pagan practice.  Those with happy children doing crafts, dancing and singing will go a long way to dispelling negative stereotypes.

  33. What i meant by relativly unbiased , was i didn’t see much in the way the usual extreme sensationalism the usual goes with pagan or “witch” news stories .Especialy for a Fox station ……..that is the worst offender in such things .  Kilm

  34. Search in yahoogroups TAFunited (Traumatized Abused Families).  We’re a group of parents fighting CPS and the corruption in the family courts.  We have a file section that should be very useful.  The first thing is to educate yourself on the laws of your state and to write down a timeline.  Then go through the timeline and show where it goes against X law.  Have this notarized and entered in your file as a Statement of Fact.  You will have to lead your attorney by the nose as most of them are in on the scam.  Most times it’s not really about religion but about $$.  The state can get $$ from the feds for every child that they remove, more if they need “services”

  35. She’s definitely not a Wiccan.  That’s a Santa Muerte shop, which is an offshoot of Mexican Catholicism that has more in common with Santeria than any European witchcraft.  Surprised the husband hasn’t trotted out accusations of her dealing with narcotraficantes, the usual slur leveled at Santa Muerte devotees.

  36. Whoa!  Wait just a minute.  Isn’t Paganism..at least Wicca, legally recognized as a legit religion now?   Hasn’t it been for a few years?  Doesn’t the US military now allow the Pentacle to be carved on the headstones of fallen service members buried at Arlington?  Or did i miss something?  Cause these are federal jurisdictions that recognize us, so why the hell doesn’t anyone else in the lower government?

  37. Many jurisdictions require mandatory mediation. While these sessions sound promising in theory, in practice, not so much. The real objective of these court ordered mediation sessions is to clear the docket.

  38. Are we watching the report in this story ?……the one above ? I’ll not try to defend a fox station , but besides the wiccan bit i didn’t see all that much bias in that news spot . The  station themselves didn’t editorialise or make any outrageous claims at all . Altho they do need to work on thier pagan teminology a bit . The only odd thing i heard them say is they called her a wicked witch , something Ms Ruis repeated herself , that her husband ot his attorney had said .Her words were they called me a witch in a bad way.Now would the American media sensationalise a story for shock value? And after all this Fox we’re talking about .    Kilm

  39. Well to clarify — and not that I don’t see your point — I meant they’re getting the words for Wicca (the religion) and Wiccans (the practitioners) wrong. Whether or not she is Wiccan or something else (and I can’t don’t think we can honestly tell just from looking at her stuff), the news outlets aren’t using the terminology properly, and it’s not a new thing… and it drives me up a wall. 

  40. The other confusing wrinkle is that the word ‘Wicca’ (the religion) is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wicca’, meaning “a (male) witch”. 

    “She’s a wicca” is still grammatically incorrect, though: the correct form would be “She’s a wicce.”

  41. mediation only works among people who want to cooperate with each other, since whatever gets decided is private and voluntary until the paper is signed. The coming to an agreement at all is completely voluntary. In unfriendly situations, it is a court-ordered waste of money and time earning barely qualified counselors incomes rivaling those of lawyers

  42. Exactly. The courts know it doesn’t work in unfriendly situations and that it puts people in danger in cases where there had been spousal abuse, but anything to save the Judge a little possible time. It is also rather expensive, and nobody assists in funding the sessions for those without the income to pay.

  43. IA. Even more specifically, don’t have children with an ex that’s a jerk. And who never once made a mistake in relationships?

  44. First, the mother needs to realize that even though they legally can not discriminate against you for your practice, they can for child neglect and harm if by exposing minors to strangers while they are naked, etc. That is why a lot of responsible covens do not allow under age people at inner court circles. (they are being smart and the kids can still learn in outter court settings.) Common sense.

    The other thing, this mother needs to serisouly get people that offer to help her to ALLOW THEM TO HELP HER! She needs to realize that this isn’t just about her, but other pagans out there. A lot of cases are referenced by other cases that have gone before a court hearing and have either won or lost to this. The more cases that are lost to this due to poor representation, they can be used against other pagans. She needs to have proper representation that has experience in this sort of legal, underhanded matters. Understand, it’s not always about IF something is legal or not, it comes down to good representation that can argue to the court WHY it’s not illegal or could be a danger to the children. Sometimes, things that are legal can be considered to be, not in the best interest of the children – thats what custody is all about.

    I wish her well, and she needs to take this more seriously and call the ACLU immediatly.

  45. Yes. Exposure to possible nudity gets treated as a huge thing in US courts. In the mind of many, “their”religion doesn’t have it, partly because in art, Jesus’s bits are politely covered while he is on the cross, though it says his clothes were taken from him, and Adam had got ashamed about himself being naked. They think nudity is bad and not sacred. Nudity is a common and harmless part of many pagan rites, but it is one of many reasons most rituals are all adult rather than family friendly. It doesn’t help her case firing all the lawyers unless they were incompetent. She should have her next representative call LLL for suggestions or perhaps referalls.

  46. Yeah, because parents often put their kids in the middle and try to tell them what to say is why often the courts won’t ask children their opinion unless they are older

  47. Also, I’m sorry your husband and his kids are going through that. Eventually children usually see through lies, but they can do a lot of damage first, (not that being a Satanist is necessarily bad, but when that isn’t true and it is treated as so, that’s hurtful. )

  48. I think it boils more down to not marrying a jerk.

    Heh. You took the words out of my mouth, Crystal. I’m married to a Christian and we carefully discussed our plan for religious education of the children before we married.

    Respect is the key. I respect his beliefs, and he respects mine.

    Because being the same religion is not proof against this sort of thing. I’ve known at least one two-Pagan household where a spouse suddenly became ‘shocked’ and ‘terrified’ by his ex’s “strange” religion when they were fighting for custody (in that case, his claims were foiled by the photos of him participating in his own handfasting).

  49. That’s why I advocate looooong dating periods before marriage, so you have enough time to learn the best and the worst of each other’s personalities.

  50. Sometimes people marry young, and no sense easily gets through, and may have been dating awhile, but still not very mature. I say to have at least finished college first

  51. I disagree, if her lawyers were not taking the religion part of her case seriously, she was very right in firing them immediately.  That way the lawyers could do no more harm to her case.  It is hard to undo things in court once they happen, rather than be proactive and prevent them from happening in the first place.

  52. ‘”She’s a wicca” is still grammatically incorrect, though: the correct form would be “She’s a wicce.”‘

    No, it’s not. We don’t speak Anglo-Saxon, and modern English doesn’t have grammatical gender. Also, ‘wicce’ is barely (if at all) used as a modern English word.

  53. For whatever it may be worth, the use of the word “Wicca” to mean the religion doesn’t seem to be and older than the early 1960s, and it was probably first used in that meaning by Charles Cardell.  He seems to have pronounced it “witcha.”  (Gerald Gardner did write of “the Wica,” meaning a group of initiated witches, but that is a somewhat different word, and has something to do with “the Wita,” or council of elders, in such organizations as the Kibbo Kift.)  If, however, you do a google book search and limit it to books published in the 1800s, you will find there were a number of blood-and-thunder historical novelists (and a few historians of England) who used the word “Wicca” to refer to a person, that is, a witch, not to a religion.  As far as I remember, in at least one of these novels the person called a Wicca was clearly not a Christian.

    Just a small historical niggle . . .

  54.  That should have been “doesn’t seem to be any older than the early 1960s” . . .

  55. Rhoanna: “No, it’s not. We don’t speak Anglo-Saxon, and modern English doesn’t have grammatical gender. Also, ‘wicce’ is barely (if at all) used as a modern English word.”

    Let me have my fun. And, if you insist that we’re speaking modern English, then the proper form would be “She’s a witch,” and we can drop all pretense of Anglo-Saxonisms altogether.

  56. Absolutely!

    My wife and I dated for 4 years, and then were living together for a year before we got handfasted, and then married a year and a day after that.

    I think that everyone ought to live together before they get married, just so that you can learn each other annoying habits & get used to them :).

  57. Actually, child custody is one of the areas in law where religion is considered to be one of the things that can legitimately be weighed.  The origin of this idea is in adoption law, where it was felt that the one thing a parent giving up a child for adoption might rightly reserve as a right is the right to require that potential adopting parents should be of their own religion.  I think such laws date to a time before conversion between religions was anywhere near as commonplace as it is today, but it still has in influence in how child custody matters are seen by courts.

    Where children’s custody are in question, courts have more power to consider religion than they otherwise might… and yet, as we all know, courts consider religion improperly often enough to be a concern.

    I don’t see much chance of this changing any time soon… and, speaking as a women’s rights advocate and a member of a minority religion, this is a loophole you could drive a truck through, in terms of religious discrimination. 

  58. You wrote, “And rather than retreat into hiding, in many cases, the best antidote
    for eradicating fear and distortions of our religion is to be open about
    what we believe and what we do.”


    I remember vividly that, when a friend was looking to adopt her two foster children, one of the social workers assigned to the case was concerned about it, based purely and solely on the family’s religion (Wicca).

    The community really rallied in support–not by expressing outrage or running to the papers, but by helping the family put on a demonstration ritual, and making ourselves available to answer questions.  As did my friend, obviously.

    Reading materials, an open full moon circle with a community full of happy, open people who pretty clearly were not the random crazies the social worker might have been thinking we were, and a frank and honest approach to demystifying our religion undoubtedly made a difference.  My friend was able to adopt her kids–and yes, they are being raised (very happily) Pagan.

  59. Cat, I have a clear recollection of a file of custody appeals that limited judicial discretion in considering religion. Each separating parent was presumed to retain that right you spoke of, to influence the child’s/children’s religious development, even if the parents had religious differences. Simple difference in faith was not a valid ground for custody determination.

    a) This was about 15 years ago.
    b) It may have been limited to one state.
    c) It was compiled for the benefit of fringe Christians trying to retain their rights against the clout of the mainstream church; it presumably applies to non-Abrahamic minorities but afaik that has not been tested.

    Whilst composing this comment I’ve recalled where I saw this. I will check it out and get back if I turn up anything substantial.

    “I don’t see much chance of this changing any time soon.”

    It can be treated like any other religious discrimination case — file appeals, bring in outside legal expertise. Even if the judge does have discretion the First Amendment is still out there.