Very few courts have addressed this question. In a 2003 case, a federal court in New York ruled that a church-operated juvenile residential facility camp was not liable for the “unauthorized baptism” of a 14-year-old Jewish girl.
A single mother filed a petition in state court alleging that her daughter (Rachel) was a “person in need of supervision.” A family court ordered Rachel to be placed in the temporary custody of a county agency. She was later placed in a residential facility maintained by the Catholic Church for the care and housing of minors who had been designated as “persons in need of care.”
Rachel’s mother did not inform the county agency, or the church, of her religion or Rachel’s religion. She filled out an “intake form,” and next to the space for “Religion” she wrote “None.” There is no evidence that the county or church knew that Rachel’s mother was Jewish or that she desired her children to be raised in the Jewish faith.
A youth counselor at the church’s juvenile residential center frequently took children on outings for entertainment or recreation, and on some occasions took them to his church (a Pentecostal church, not affiliated with the residential center).
No process was employed to determine the religious affiliation of the children going with him to church. The church had a band playing contemporary music as part of its services. Rachel accompanied the youth counselor on a trip to the church. While the children were at the church, the senior pastor asked “is there anyone here that needs to be baptized?” Rachel indicated to him that she wanted to be baptized. On the following Sunday, she was baptized at the church.
Rachel later testified that she attended Jewish religious services with her mother or grandparents on religious holidays. When asked why she attended these services, she replied, “Because I had to. I wasn’t old enough to make my own decision and my mom made me go.” Her mother had suggested that she be “bas mitzvahed,” but she was not, and testified that “I didn’t want to.” Rachel had also rejected Catholicism, the religion of her father.
Rachel’s mother sued the church for violating her constitutional right to raise her daughter in the Jewish faith. She demanded $15 million in damages.
A federal district court dismissed the case as frivolous. It began its opinion by noting, “This case is a paradigm of the current litigation explosion. Plaintiff seeks to mulct a Catholic charity and others, for fifteen million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages plus counsel fees for proselytizing her minor daughter in behalf of a Pentecostal Church.” The court concluded:
There is no evidence presented that the Catholic church [which operated the juvenile residential facility] had any policy or practice which resulted in the constitutional violation complained of. Indeed, it is implausible, and indeed ludicrous that the church would engage in supporting or advancing the desire of a child committed to its care to be baptized among the Pentecostals contrary to her parent’s wishes. And it did not. As noted earlier, the church had no actual or constructive notice that Rachel was Jewish or that her mother had decided to raise her in the Jewish faith. Liability under the civil rights laws may not be founded on negligence, but there is not even any negligence in this case, because none of the participants knew of the underlying facts which would have triggered any duty of care.
This case is significant because it is one of only a few rulings that have addressed the question of church liability for unauthorized religious practices and ceremonies performed on minors without parental consent.
The ruling’s significance is enhanced by the fact that it was rendered by a highly respected federal district court. The court’s conclusion that adolescent children have a constitutionally protected right to make decisions regarding religious practices, even if those conflict with their parents’ religion, will serve as a useful (though not binding) precedent in other jurisdictions. However, it does not address situations involving young children, including infants. Whalen v. Allers, 302 F.Supp.2d 194 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).