Baxter v Baxter [2019] NZFC 3321

Published 25 September 2020

Guardianship dispute — exposure to religion — Jehovah's Witness — continuity of care — welfare and best interests of children — Care of Children Act 2004, ss 4, 5 & 6 — United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, art 14 — New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, ss 13 & 15 — Moore v Moore [2015] NZFLR 457 — Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority [1984] EWCA Civ J1220-3, [1986] AC 112. The applicant mother sought a direction from the Court that the respondent father not involve their two children with the Jehovah's Witness church through attendance at church, bible study groups or witnessing. The parties had been together for 17 years, and in the final year of their marriage the father began engaging in the Jehovah's Witness faith. They had come to a mutual agreement regarding all other care and guardianship concerns and communicated effectively; they simply could not come to agreement on this issue. The children were in the day-to-day care of their mother and spent three nights a week with their father. The father was now deeply involved in the Jehovah's Witness faith, attending weekly meetings, Sunday church, study groups in the evening and witnessing (where followers of the faith travel through the community door-knocking and engaging with occupants of homes) around the community. The mother acknowledged the children had the right to be exposed to their father's beliefs, but thought a watered-down version was appropriate and exposure to the more trenchant and fundamentalist views should be restricted. The mother had Christian-based beliefs but exposed the children to a variation of belief systems and world views. Throughout the parties' relationship the children had celebrated Christian holidays but the children were aware that the father now hated Christmas and birthdays. She was concerned the children would be exposed to a faith that denigrated people who held beliefs outside of the Jehovah's Witness faith and placed women in a restrictive role in society. She did not want the children to no longer enjoy aspects of their lives such as birthdays and was concerned they had started saying that non-adherents of the faith go to Satan. Father simply wanted to share his faith with his children. While initially he sought regular and frequent participation for the children, by the end of the hearing he submitted that monthly attendance at church and witnessing a couple of times a year was appropriate for the children. As with all guardianship disputes, the primary focus of the decision was the welfare and best interests of the children. The Judge determined that attendance at the father's church once per month was in the welfare and best interests of the children. This would expose them to their father's faith but limit potential negative opinions forming against other world views. The Judge expressly did not consent to the children being taken witnessing in the public as this may pose a risk to their safety. Judgment Date: 3 May 2019. * * * Note: names have been changed to comply with legal requirements. * * *