Local News

Home school custody battle turns on religious freedom

Posted March 17, 2009 4:06 p.m. EDT
Updated March 17, 2009 6:44 p.m. EDT

— 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.