Sunday, November 9, 2003

DENVER — Like many Christian churches, the one attended by Dr. Cheryl Clark displays an assortment of religious pamphlets in its foyer, including some published by the Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family.

It was those materials that prompted a Denver judge to forbid Dr. Clark from exposing her daughter to anything “that can be considered homophobic,” according to an appeal filed last week by Dr. Clark’s attorneys and obtained by The Washington Times.

Dr. Clark, who left a lesbian relationship after converting to Christianity about three years ago, is embroiled in a custody battle with her former partner, Elsey McLeod. In April, Miss McLeod won joint custody of Dr. Clark’s adopted daughter and restricted Dr. Clark from including anything homophobic in the child’s “religious upbringing or teaching.”

Both Christian and homosexual-rights groups are following the case, which has broad implications for how much control the courts can exert over the education and upbringing of children.

“This is the state coming into a home and telling a mother what she can do and say in her home,” said Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a public-interest law firm that has filed a brief in support of Dr. Clark.

“The purpose of Focus on the Family is to strengthen the family in America,” said Bill Maier, the group’s vice president. “It is a sad commentary when a judge would consider a church homophobic because they display our materials.”

In the 30-page appeal filed Oct. 27 with the Colorado Court of Appeals, Dr. Clark’s attorneys argued that the judge’s order violated her constitutional rights to direct the upbringing of her child, as well as their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech.

“While Dr. Clark has no intention of exposing her child to anything inappropriate, the order itself is a breathtakingly broad restriction on the fundamental rights of Dr. Clark and her daughter,” said her attorney, James Rouse, in the appeal.

Denver District Court Judge John W. Coughlin issued his order after Miss McLeod testified that the religious materials at Dr. Clark’s church were “somehow improper,” according to the appeal.

“[Miss McLeod] did not think Dr. Clark’s church was appropriate because it had Promise Keepers pamphlets in the foyer,” it states.

Critics say the order has the potential to prevent Dr. Clark from attending a particular church or following certain religious traditions to avoid being found in contempt of court. The decision fails to explain the meaning of “homophobic,” leaving the door open for the state to substitute its own definition.

“[T]he state cannot get into the business of approving which churches Dr. Clark may attend with her daughter, what theology or doctrine Dr. Clark and [her daughter] may study or believe, nor can it create a state-approved list of which churches are homophobic and which are not, nor which teachings are homophobic and which are not, nor can the state even prohibit churches from teachings which the state considers homophobic,” the appeal said.

Most of Dr. Clark’s appeal is devoted to the argument that Miss McLeod has no parental rights to the child. Now 8 years old, the girl was adopted from China by Dr. Clark after she became involved with Miss McLeod.

Judge Coughlin ruled that Miss McLeod should be considered a “psychological parent” because of her longtime relationship with the child. He said the girl recognizes both women as her parents and that Dr. Clark encouraged this by changing the child’s name by adding “McLeod” as a middle name.

In her appeal, however, Dr. Clark’s attorneys note that Miss McLeod never sought to adopt the child and thus has no legal standing as a parent. In previous cases, the court has granted “psychological parent” status when the legal parent has been absent or negligent, neither of which applies in this case.

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