Court: Father can tell daughter about polygamy
Former York County man a fundamentalist Mormon
MARK SCOLFORO The Associated Press
HARRISBURG -- A father may teach his minor daughter about polygamy,
despite his ex-wife's objections, if the discussion does not present
her with "a grave threat of harm," the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said
in a custody-case ruling released yesterday.
The 5-1 decision allowed Stanley M. Shepp, a former York County man,
to talk about plural marriages and multiple wives even though bigamy
is illegal under state
law. Shepp considers himself a fundamentalist Mormon, though the
Mormon church officially renounces polygamy.
"Where, as in the instant matter, there is no finding that discussing
such matters constitutes a grave threat of harm to the child, there is
insufficient basis for the court to infringe on a parent's
constitutionally protected right to speak to a child about religion as
he or she sees fit," wrote Justice Sandra Schultz Newman in an opinion
joined by three others.
Previous ruling: A county judge had prohibited Shepp from teaching the
child about his polygamist beliefs -- at least until she turned 18 --
and that decision was upheld by the state Superior Court.
The girl's mother, Tracey L. Roberts, testified that she was concerned
Shepp may introduce their daughter to men in preparation for marriage
at age 13, according to the court opinion.
Roberts and Shepp have joint legal custody of Kaylynne, who is now 13.
Newman wrote that the state's interest in enforcing the anti-bigamy
law "is not an interest of the 'highest order'" that would trump a
parent's right to tell a child about deeply held religious beliefs.
A court may prohibit a parent from advocating religious beliefs that
amount to a crime if doing so jeopardizes the child's physical or
mental health or safety, or potentially creates significant social
burdens, Newman wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Max Baer said he would uphold the lower-court
order because the father's behavior presents a grave threat to the
child and because polygamy is "inimical to society as a whole."
Local ties: Roberts and Shepp met at a Mormon church in York in 1991
and married a year later, but she eventually brought his growing
interest in polygamy to the attention of church elders.
The couple separated in 2000. Shepp was excommunicated from the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more
than a century ago, shortly before their divorce. He later remarried.
During a court hearing, Shepp testified that he preferred to tell his
children when they are young about his lifestyle rather than "all of a
sudden pop something on them like that."
Roberts' daughter from a previous marriage testified that Shepp once
suggested that "since I was already living in the house and we were
already related, that it would be a good idea for us to be married,"
according to court documents. Shepp denied that allegation.
Roberts' lawyer, Richard Konkel, said Shepp has contacted his daughter
since moving to Utah at least six months ago. Konkel said an appeal to
the U.S. Supreme Court was being considered.
Shepp's lawyer, Dann S. Johns, did not immediately return phone
messages seeking comment yesterday.
Justice J. Michael Eakin issued an opinion that joined the majority in
allowing the father to teach the girl about polygamy, but said he
disagreed with their analysis of the constitutional issues involved.