Judge decides that Jewish girl could be baptised
4 August 2012
A Mother v. A Father HHJ Platt, Romford County Court, 11 May 2012, read judgment
I recently dared to enter religious territory in a post about religious no-go zones declared by the courts – they should not pronounce on the intricacies of Sikh succession because it raised doctrinal issues which the courts should not decide. Compare and contrast this family law case.
Judges have to get involved in disputes on divorce, of which the current case is an exquisitely difficult example. Its facts are very simple. C was 10. Her parents and grandparents are Jewish. Her father is a Christian convert, and C wanted to be baptised. Her mother did not want this. She said father had brainwashed C, and it was premature. Mother went to court to stop any baptism proceeding until C was 16. The Court could not simply wash its hands of the case; that would encourage self-help taken by one or other parent, to the lasting resentment of the other.
What then was the judge’s job? Simply to follow the task set him by section 1 of the Children Act 1989, and to decide what was in the best interests of the child – which is not necessarily the same as what either parent wanted for the child. He reviewed the religious and cultural history of the marriage (secular Judaism, with little if no religious observance), the father’s conversion (after the marriage had emotionally come to an end), and C’s involvement in the Church and her wish to undergo baptism. The judge thought that the latter was important. C had raised the issue initially. Father had told mother about C’s desire for baptism, but also had sought to persuade C out of rushing into baptism. Then C had made her own independent inquiries of her Sunday School teacher as to how to go about preparing for baptism. This appears to have triggered mother’s application to court.
Given C’s wishes, the real issue for the judge was whether he should prohibit baptism until C was older, or allow her to follow her own wishes. In the end, he preferred the latter; that was in the best interests of C, even though baptism may upset mother and grandparents.
Interestingly, no expert evidence was called by either side, other than rival letters from Rabbi and clergyman. The judge certainly attached importance to the fact that baptism was an introduction into the Church, as distinct from confirmation which did not usually occur before 16 at which point the person would become a full communicant member of the Church. But what about any effect of baptism on C’s status as a Jew?
It may be some comfort both to the mother and to the grandparents if I set out my understanding of Jewish law on this topic although I stress that since I have received no expert evidence on this issue what follows has played no part in my decision making process. My understanding of Jewish law is that a person who is born a Jew cannot deprive himself of his Jewish status. Christian baptism does not have any effect on that status. The purported act of conversion to Christianity simply has no legal effect and C would therefore be free to resume her Jewish faith at any time if she wished to do so.
But let us assume that some dispute had arisen between experts about how baptism would impact on Judaism or indeed any other faith. What then? It seems as if the Courts would then have to decide such doctrinal disputes if they were relevant to the welfare of the child – despite the religious no-go area identified in my previous post.
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