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Home school custody battle turns on religious freedom

Posted March 17, 2009

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— Judge Ned Mangum released his ruling Tuesday in a custody case that has become a cause célèbre in the homeschooling community, saying three children must go to public school next year.

Mangum reiterated his oral judgment that the children of Thomas and Venessa Mills must be enrolled in public school in the 2009-10 school year. Venessa Mills is in the fourth year of home schooling her children, who are 10, 11 and 12 years old.

In an affidavit filed to request the change, Thomas Mills grants that he agreed the children would be home schooled, but temporarily. “I made it clear to (Venessa Mills) I objected to our children being removed from public schools,” he stated.

Thomas and Venessa Mills are in the process of divorcing. Thomas Mills cites Venessa’s involvement with the Sound Doctrine Church for their split. “She became unrecognizable as the person I married, and, in the name of her religion, she distanced herself from me,” his affidavit said.

He admitted that distance led him to stray from his marriage. He admitted to an affair. “Venessa Mills expressed appropriate concern for his transgressions,” the court order stated.

Venessa Mills asked the court to order that her husband have no decision-making authority related to the children’s education or religion.

The majority of the testimony supporting Mangum’s ruling dealt with Venessa Mills’ membership in the Sound Doctrine Church. According to the ruling, her mother, father and sister said under oath that “they are concerned about Venessa’s involvement with Sound Doctrine and are particularly concerned about the effect on the children.”

A woman described as Venessa’s “life-long friend” who served as her maid of honor at her 1994 wedding said, “Because of my friendship with Venessa Mills, it is extremely hard for me to make this affidavit, but I want to make the court aware of my concern for the Mills children.”

Since joining the Sound Doctrine Church, “Venessa has pushed her loved ones away,” Shanna Winkler-Hanson said. “From what I observed, it was apparent to me that Venessa has an extreme amount of control over the children,” her affidavit said.

Former members of Sound Doctrine Church also wrote affidavits questioning the practices of the church, calling them “very cult-like” and saying the church was “run by fear and manipulation.”

In his custody ruling, Mangum wrote that both parents should have the opportunity to influence the children’s religious development. “This court can not and will not infringe upon either party’s right to practice their own religion and expose their children to the same,” he wrote.

In addition to outlining the children’s physical custody and school arrangements, Mangum ordered that Venessa Mills undergo a mental health assessment.

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  • generic11 Mar 18, 2009

    I'm with you ncmike. I am so glad that it is no longer just a given that the mother is given full custody. Just because you are female doesn't make you a better parent. Times have changed so that the roles of the stay at home mom being the sole nurturer just don't apply anymore. Luckily, my ex and I share custody of our dear son. We manage to make things work for HIS benefit. If there is any way you can avoid court, do it. Better for everyone involved. In this particular case, I agree with the judge. Seems the mother isn't just wanting to home school, but involved in some extreme religious activities. Seems to me the state putting "needs of the children" first is being followed here.

  • ncmike Mar 18, 2009

    This is a victory for a father’s parental rights and what is in the best interest of the children. Most of you never experienced this – I have.

    I am a divorced father of 2 teens; my ex is a control freak - obsessive and paranoid; she pulled them out of school to ‘protect’ them from the ‘bad’ elements under the guise of home schooling. They were not permitted to any media or computers; every social contact was under her control. She became so obsessed that she alienated me from them for 2.5 years through fear, intimidation and isolation even though I had joint legal custody through a mediated settlement; she claimed they didn’t want to see me which of course was proven all lies.

    With only a GED my older child was rejected from all of the 4 year colleges to which she applied; she is now clawing her way back through community college; my ex simply stopped educating my younger child in her frosh year. Oh and by the way, I didn’t cheat.

  • happymom Mar 18, 2009

    Folks, this case is not about religious freedom (as the order specifically and intentionally states). It's about parental rights.

    If you read the order, you will see that the mother was requesting to cut the father out of the children's lives. The father was asking for an equal say in what happens to his children. The judge had the uneviable job of deciding how to be fair to two parties who had very, very different goals and opinions.

    The judge's order did not say that the mother couldn't practice her relgion or that she couldn't teach her beliefs to her children. What it did say is that the father had the equal right to teach HIS beliefs as well.

    The affair is a moot point. I haven't seen anything that said he committed adultry if front of the children or that he was otherwise behaving inappropriately with them. Given that, the affair may be relevant to the divorce, but not the custody of the children.

  • TallWillow Mar 18, 2009

    "A spouse[...] may decide that what YOU are doing with YOUR children, education or religion or even how they dress, is not what they deem right or appropriate or standard to the their "norm"." marymvicente

    If the spouse is also the children's parent, then s/he DOES have the (shared) right to decide what is and is not appropriate for your (shared) children.

    Everyone making this about religious freedom is missing the boat. The judge doesn't say the mother can't practice her religion and teach it to her children. His order just gives the father equal time. Do you think HE doesn't have the right to teach them HIS religion?

    And those who claim that his affair makes him unfit as a parent are so far off-base as to be utterly ridiculous. No one condones adultery, but it is an offense against the spouse, not against the children.

    H/S may be a right, but one parent can't claim it unilaterally. ESPECIALLY when expecting the other to support not just the education, but them, too.

  • cocker_mom Mar 18, 2009

    Please - if anyone is going to post this is a religious freedom issue, or even a home schooling issue - please confirm that you have read the order. Because if you haven't - you don't have enough information and we can pass over your opinion.

    If you want to feel strongly about this and post - take the time to READ THE RULING.

    If she was teaching lessons with a religious slant, or covering the 10 commandments, or integrating religion into her lessons - I really don't think anyone would be up in arms. Including hubby.

    But she's not - she's teaching 100% directly from the Bible. She's teaching and controlling based on the teachings of a fundamentalist splinter group that advocates "breaking" the children into 100% blind obedience.

    One child stood and did the dishes and wet his pants when she said he could not use the bathroom. Nice, huh?

    Her parents and friends are concerned about HER - but she's an adult and can make choices - the kids cannot and they are in danger.

  • cartman Mar 18, 2009

    Gloria - the issue isn't homeschooling. Read all the documents, everyone is concerned for the children's well being and this cult the mother is a member of. The mother needs a psych evaluation.

    As far as cheating, it takes two people to make a marriage work, if she devoted as much energy to her cult as she did her marriage he may have not had an affair.

  • thompsongj Mar 18, 2009

    I guess it is okay to have an affair and to blame your wife for cheating because she distanced himself from her.
    I also think it is awful this judge has made this ruling. This is not Russia but rather a free country that allows parents to homeschool their children. As I have not read all the paperwork with this court action though if she is mentally unstable to teach the children this is different. Her husband should not have any say so about this he is as he is a disgrace for a husband as he seems to think cheating is okay. Wow so its okay to cheat but it is not okay to home school...
    Gloria

  • Raleigh1956 Mar 18, 2009

    I just read the custody order and it strikes me that the children are always the losers in a divorce. Spend one week at one home, then the next at another home. What kind of a way is that to live? I know I would hate it. The children should stay in the family home and the parents be the ones moving in and out.

  • haggis basher Mar 18, 2009

    "But I will pray for them! That is something I was taught to do by my parents, pray for others."
    Yep, its a lot easier than doing something that actually might make a difference!

  • Piny tek Mar 18, 2009

    This woman needs help. You remember the cases of children driven into the lake to drown, stoned to death, drowned in the bath tabs...etc, these are usually the signs that go unattended.

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