The Fox affiliate in Houston, Texas reports on the case of Sylvia Ruiz, a mother of three who’s currently in divorce proceedings, and is having custody of her children challenged on religious grounds.
“Silvia accuses family court of scrutinizing her more because of her religious choice. That’s why, without notice, she fired her attorney on the spot, asked Judge Robert Newey to recuse himself, and tried to fire her children’s attorney. “I’ve been a good mother and they have nothing to put on me, some spot on my name as a mother,” she said. [...] Sylvia has a Wiccan shop and make-shift temple in the back of their Spring Branch home. Martin took us inside and there were pentagrams, oils, powders, bones and an assortment of items I couldn’t describe. “Crazy people come here to see her and my kids are here and that’s what I don’t like,” he said.”
Martin Ruiz says that Sylvia conducts nude rituals, and that he doesn’t want his children exposed to that. Sylvia, in turn, accuses Martin of being an absentee parent who has barely spent any time with his family. You can watch the entire video report, embedded below.
I’ve written in depth about the tendency for one’s Pagan religion being used against a parent in custody cases, painting Wicca and other faiths as exotic and dangerous belief systems that might corrupt young children. The mere accusation of adherence to Wicca or modern Paganism is sometimes enough to affect a custody case. In my interview last year with Texas resident Jen Lepp, founder of the Pagan-owned Internet hosting company DrakNet (now owned by A Small Orange), she made it clear that the company’s move to “de-Pagan” itself came because of pressures resulting from a custody case.
“The fourth year I owned DrakNet, my husband and I got a divorce, and the following year (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into), we entered into a highly acrimonious custody battle. The suit stated outright in it’s initial filing that the basis was the fact that I was Pagan. I hired an attorney who dismissed it as a concern, stating my religion could not be used against me. While I have no doubt the attorney believed that when he told me, he was wrong and his objection was overruled. The county this lawsuit was in was extremely right-leaning, and the Judge in the case relieved me of custody temporarily while my beliefs and their affect on my ability to parent was investigated. Those I knew in the community did offer to rush to my defense, have protests on the courthouse lawn, call the press, and make the case into a circus, but I strongly felt then, as I do now, that a child cannot choose to be at the center of a public controversy. Though I was very, very careful in my answers not to establish any precedent or disclaim or lie about anything I was in the final trial, once I fought back and defended myself and won, I chose not to tempt fate a second time and I left Paganism so that it could not be used against me again.”
Lepp’s experience is in no way unique, and Pagan parents heading back into the closet for the benefit of their children has become a widely acknowledged phenomenon in our interlocking communities. While there have been some promising rulings recently on the issue of religion in custody cases, Pagan parents still often face an uphill struggle when one parent decides to make an issue of their beliefs, resulting in damaging fights that can last years. It’s a tactic that’s even been tried on the rich and famous, though not with the desired results.
The standard for awarding custody due to religion has to rely on obvious religiously-motivated abuse and harm that can be proven, not ominous intimations of ritual “nudity” or strange altars. The courts should not be in the business of deciding what religion is better for a child in custody cases if no abuse or mistreatment can be proven. In addition to fighting for stronger legal precedents to prevent judicial value judgments, other responses to the problem of parents using religion against each other in custody battles is increased mandatory mediation sessions, and giving greater agency to the children in these cases. A cocktail of all three could provide a good inoculation against religious discrimination in the courtroom. In the meantime, many Pagans, and other adherents to minority religions, still worry about revealing too much about their faith, lest it be used against them should a marriage fall apart. If you are a Pagan parent worried about custody, I suggest contacting the Lady Liberty League for help and advice. For those who can speak out, becoming more visible and understood is key in demolishing stereotypes about our faiths.
Finally, sunlight in these cases can be a good disinfectant. The more public scrutiny given to custody cases where Pagan religion is being used as a factor, the less likely it is a judge might decide to insert his personal prejudices. I’ll keep you appraised on any updates on this case, as will PNC-Texas, who are now following this story.