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Sept. 14 — A trial court's order in a custody and visitation proceeding that a father to obtain a psychological evaluation did not violate his freedom of conscience, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held Sept. 14. Rejecting the Rastafarian father's challenge to the order, the court upheld the trial court's order that the father's parenting time with his youngest child be supervised.
In 2011, the mother of the father's three children petitioned for custody. The trial court appointed a guardian ad litem for the children, and granted mother temporary sole legal physical custody of the children, and granted father temporary parenting time.
During the proceedings, the court ordered the parties to obtain psychological evaluations and parenting assessments. The mother complied with the order, but the father refused to based on his Rastafarian religious beliefs.
The parties subsequently stipulated that the father would have sole legal and physical custody of the two older children, and the mother would have such custody of the youngest. They were unable to agree on the father's time with that child, however.
The trial court found that despite the recommendations of the GAL and its own order, the father had consistently refused to participate in the psychological evaluation and parenting assessment, based on his religious convictions. It noted that it had more than once warned him that his refusal to comply with the order would result in its drawing negative inferences as to his mental health, and it indeed did so.
Explaining that the father's “exercise of conscience does not obviate the statutory factor of his mental health,” the trial court said that it could not abandon the child's right “to have the legal protections afforded by examination of all factors in determining his best interests.” It went on to grant the father supervised parenting time with the youngest child.
The father appealed, claiming that the state custody statute was unconstitutional as applied to him inasmuch as the order requiring him to obtain a psychological evaluation under it forced him to violate a tenet of his religion or suffer negative consequences on his parenting time.
In an opinion by Judge Heidi S. Schellhas, joined by Judges Natalie E. Hudson and Edward J. Cleary, the appeals court noted that “in evaluating the constitutionality of statutes that are challenged based on violations of freedom of conscience, the supreme court has ‘retain[ed] the compelling state interest balancing test.' Hill-Murray Fed’n of Teachers v. Hill-Murray High Sch., 487 N.W.2d 857, 865 (Minn. 1992).”
Under the first prong of the Hill-Murray test, Schellhas said, “we must determine whether father’s belief is sincerely held.” He claims, she observed, that the tenets of his Rastafarian faith prohibit him from obtaining a psychological evaluation.
Finding that the record supported a finding that the father's belief was sincerely held, Schellhas note that under the second prong of the Hill-Murray test, it must be determined whether the state custody statute, Minn. Stat. §518.131, subd. 1, burdened the father's exercise of his religious belief.
“Based on the facts in this case, we conclude that the burden placed on father was real and not remote, potentially interfering with his father-child relationship,” Schellhas declared.
Under the third Hill-Murray prong, she went on, “we must determine whether the state ’s interest in father undergoing the court-ordered psychological evaluation is overriding and compelling.” She noted that the government has a compelling interest in safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of children, which applies in proceedings over custody and parenting time.
The father had contended that the state’s interest was not compelling in this case because the trial court drew its negative inference regarding his mental health “nearly two and one-half years after the initiation of the case,” during which period, he argued, the court had the ability to take his testimony on numerous occasions, and to obtain input and feedback as to his mental fitness to parent from the GAL, with whom he had worked extensively. Also, he said, the trial court awarded custody of the two older children to him without his having submitted to the psychological test.
“We are not persuaded by father’s argument s that the state’s interest is not compelling in this case,” Schellhas said, observing that the father had failed to mention the trial court's findings about its concerns regarding his “courtroom demeanor, mental health and fitness to parent, and the GAL’s concerns about father’s mental health.”
In addition, she said, “the record reflects that the older children refused to remain in mother’s care as a result of father’s successful alienation efforts.” Accordingly, she found, the father's argument “that the state has no compelling interest in protecting the best interests of the children in this case is entirely inconsistent with the court’s findings.”
The fourth prong of the test, Schellhas said, “is whether the state regulation uses the least-restrictive means.” The father argued his counsel had requested alternatives to psychological evaluations, but Schellhas noted that he “did not provide the district court with any specific less-restrictive alternatives.” She added that “[b]ased on the record before us, we conclude that none of father’s vague alternatives for verification of his mental health and fitness to parent was a viable less-restrictive means to accomplish the state’s compelling interest in protecting the children.”
The trial court, Schellhas said, “found that ‘[father]’s behavior has created clear and unambiguous concern about his mental health'. The record supports this finding, and we therefore conclude that Minnesota Statutes section 518.131, subdivision 1, as applied, does not impermissibly violate father’s constitutional freedom of conscience.”
She went on to find that the court “did not abuse its discretion in establishing father’s parenting time.”
The mother was represented by Allison Maxim, of Maxim Law, P.L.L.C., St. Paul, and the father by Kellen T. Fish, of KTF Law Firm, P.L.L.C., Minneapolis.
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