Civil rights groups urge reversal of judge’s definition of ‘main line’ church

Friday, September 3, 1999

Civil rights groups are seeking reversal of a judge's ruling that barred a divorced mother from taking her daughter to a church that ministers to gays.

Last year a divorcing couple from Wichita Falls, Texas, agreed to mutually decide the religious training their 5-year-old daughter would receive. Lisa Michelle Goldberg, a Christian, started taking her daughter to services and social activities at a Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant church that welcomes and ministers to gay and lesbian Christians. Gary Michael Goldberg objected to the church and asked a state judge to bar the mother from taking the child to its services.

In late April, District Court Judge Keith Nelson ruled that the mother could not attend the Metropolitan church with her daughter because it was not a “main line” church.

“The Court finds that it was the intent of the parties at the time of the Mediation Agreement and the entry of the Agreed Decree of Divorce that main line churches would be utilized by the parties for the religious training of the child … and that such main line churches would include the Catholic church, churches of the Protestant faith, such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Christian, Episcopalian, and the like, as well as the Jewish Synagogue would be included,” Nelson wrote. “The Court finds that the Metropolitan Church at Wichita Falls does not fall within this category.”

On Sept. 1, several national civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 2nd District Texas Court of Appeals urging it to reverse Nelson's order on religious-liberty grounds.

The groups argue that the judge's ruling violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the mother's free exercise of religion.

“In judging certain churches to be 'main line,' or orthodox, and ruling that the Metropolitan Community Church did not deserve this governmental imprimatur, the trial court violated the Establishment Clause,” the groups argued in their 27-page brief. The establishment clause they said, “requires absolute government neutrality toward all religious denominations, prevents the state from favoring or disfavoring any religion, and prohibits government evaluation of religious denominations.”

Determining which religions are mainstream leaves a court far from being neutral toward religion, the groups argued. “Instead, determining whether a church is 'main line' requires religiously value-laden judgments about the propriety and orthodoxy of church doctrine, the extent to which church teachings reflect those embraced by religious majorities in our culture, and the historical pedigree of the church in question.”

Besides crossing the church-state line by endorsing certain religions, the judge unconstitutionally hindered the mother's right to practice her religion, the civil rights groups also said. Citing several Texas court decisions that say judges are not to prefer the religion of one parent over another in divorce and custody cases, the civil rights groups accused Nelson of intruding “upon the mother's free exercise right to participate in the religious upbringing of her child by disfavoring her religious denomination and preferring those that the court deemed more 'main line.'”

In 1968, the first Metropolitan Community Church was founded by the Rev. Troy Perry in Los Angeles. The denomination, which now has over 300 churches worldwide, advocates an inclusive form of Christianity and equal protection under the Constitution for gays.

Perry called the Texas judge's ruling shocking. “For the first time in the 30-year history of the [church], a judge has overstepped boundaries provided by the U.S. Constitution and has ruled that [the church] is not a suitable church for our children,” Perry said in prepared statement issued shortly after Nelson's decision. “This is appalling and patently illegal. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically requires government to stay out of religion. But because we're gay or lesbian, this judge feels he can decide by official government decree which churches are 'acceptable' and which are not.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, said that the situation “could be a simple case of prejudice against a congregation open to gay people.”

“But judges should not be in the business of determining which denominations qualify as acceptable,” he said. “The state judge's ruling is astounding and way beyond the scope of his duties.”