This week’s legal story is the decision by Judge Platt in the Romford County Court to permit a 10 year old girl to convert to Christianity in the face of her Jewish mother’s objections. The mother has asked the court to delay the baptism until her daughter was 16, when she would be more mature. What seems on the face of it to be an astonishing decision becomes altogether more mundane on further examination of the facts of the case. The girl’s parents were divorced and she and her brother were the subject of shared care arrangements between them. Her father had recently converted from Judaism to Christianity himself, and his daughter told him that she had had “an encounter with God” after attending an evangelical Christian festival. The father was sceptical and unhappy when she subsequently went behind his back to speak to her Sunday school teacher about baptism. Sceptical he may well have been, as many children flirt with religion and go through a fervent phase, which most of them outgrow in time.
Despite the focus on the Press on the judge’s open and encouraging letter to the girl, this case is not so much about the girl’s wishes and feelings, in light of her age and understanding, as set out in the Children Act 1989. This provision gives judge discretion to assess a child’s maturity. This would be relevant, for example where one parent has applied to court to take that child to a different country to live. The potential left behind parent may well say that a supportive child in these circumstances is just a mouthpiece for the Applicant parent. A judge will look at what the child’s view, and will consider that and other factors in determining the outcome. In the instant case, a reasonable person might rightly be shocked if a 10 year old should be able to decide upon their religion and upbringing. But sadly this matter is more about the way the case was litigated. Having been spoken to by her daughter, the mother made an application to court to prevent her conversion or baptism. She did not consult or forewarn her former husband before rushing to court. The mother, grandparents and their rabbi made various unsubstantiated claims about the father, who seemed at best, ambivalent about his daughter’s revelation. In evidence, the rabbi said that it was “unnatural for the soul” to convert from Judaism.
In his judgment, the judge was scathing about the mother’s actions, and those who supported her, stating that she had not considered what was in her daughter’s best interests, and that there was no excuse for her failure to speak to her former husband before embarking upon court proceedings. The judge therefore merely refused the mother’s application to prevent the father from baptising his child. It was a reflection of the fact that the mother’s case was not strong. However, this is being widely reported as a decision to permit a child to convert to Christianity. I doubt very much that this will be used as a precedent in England.
© Punam Denley, August 2012
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