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.

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