'Christianity is not on trial': baby custody case pits B.C. zealots against state

The unbending couple's attempts to purge churches of evil have brought them into conflict with other Christians around B.C. They claimed to hear directly from God. But are they capable of raising a child?

Couple refused legal aid, advising witnesses 'it was their lawyer Jesus Christ asking the questions'

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has dismissed an appeal from a Christian couple who claimed the government took away their child because of their beliefs.

The couple spoke in tongues in court to a stuffed lion who they claimed was giving them direct counsel from God.

They rejected legal aid, preferring to advise witnesses "it was their lawyer Jesus Christ asking the questions through the voice of the parent."

The battle was for custody of their baby — who the mother wants to rename Jesus JoyoftheLord.

They lost.

Now, in a decision highlighting the tightrope social workers walk in balancing parental beliefs with child safety, a B.C. Supreme Court judge has dismissed the Kelowna couple's claim of religious persecution.

"This is a difficult case," wrote Justice Diane MacDonald. 

"The parents obviously love their child and wish to raise her in a home with their Christian values."

High stakes

MacDonald's ruling details a troubling history that has seen the couple — known as AJ and DK — move from community to community after alienating others in efforts to purge churches of "evil influences."

The stakes are high because a continuing custody order paves the way to adoption.

The case is not the first time religion has entered a child custody dispute. In 2015, a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses were ordered not to talk about religion with their four-year-old granddaughter. (Corey Perrine/Naples Daily News via Associated Press)

The case is not the first time religion has reared its head in a child custody dispute.

In 2015, a pair of devout Jehovah's Witnesses were ordered not to talk about religion in front of their four-year-old granddaughter.

And in 2009, Canada's top court dismissed the case of a Manitoba girl — also a Jehovah's Witness — who said her rights were violated when she was forced to get a blood transfusion as a minor.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development got involved with AJ and DK in 2016 after AJ told a facilitator at a lunch program that DK had choked her and "believes sexual relations between children should be encouraged".

She would later deny making the disclosure, but the reports raised red flags because AJ was pregnant.

A new baby and 'evil influences'

The baby — CJ — was delivered in a home birth Nov. 1, 2016, with the help of a paramedic called by AJ's anxious parents.

The young mother refused a host of medical procedures, including eye drops for the baby, a bilirubin blood test and a hearing test. She also "expressed unwillingness to allow the child to receive vaccinations."

The baby was born in a home birth assisted by a paramedic who gave instructions after the mother's concerned parents called 911. (Shutterstock/Prachaya Teerakathiti)

Concerns had been expressed about AJ's mental health and DK's potential for violence. A specialist was assigned to work with the family, and the baby was placed in voluntary care with foster parents.

At the age of one month, AJ and DK took custody again, but just two weeks later the child was formally removed from the home as she was losing weight and AJ refused to give her anything but breast milk.

Even as the parents prepared for the initial trial to determine custody, the pastor of one church sought a restraining order against them.

The pair were criminally charged after a disturbance at another church in West Kelowna.

"DK co-operated with the arrest but AJ 'rolled around on the ground' and did not co-operate," the decision says. "The parents allegedly wanted to cleanse the Church of evil influences."

'Not about the parent's freedom of religion'

The original custody trial saw the director of child, family and community services argue that concerns over mental health, violence and medical care rendered AJ and DK incapable of caring for their baby.

The couple took the position "that there are no child protection issues and that they are being persecuted for their deeply held Christian beliefs."

MacDonald's review of the case was limited to errors of law, but she noted that the trial judge went so far as to state that "he, himself, was a Christian and did not have any issue with their Christian family values."

That judge also went to great pains to establish what the trial was and was not about.

"I restate that this hearing is not about the parent's freedom of religion," the original decision read.

"Christianity is not on trial. The parent's belief in direct revelation from God or in using the gift of tongues is not on trial. Home birthing is not on trial. The right not to use vaccinations or have one's child not use vaccinations is not on trial."

MacDonald said she could find no error of law or discrimination in the custody ruling. Rather, she found a decision made in the best interests of the child.

But if adoption happens, the judge said she hoped the ministry would consider finding an extended family member to care for CJ.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.