BENTLEY v. BENTLEY was a 1982 New York appellate court
decision.   Jeffrey Bentley and Margaret Bentley were
married in December 1970. The parties separated in
October 1977, and were divorced on August 17, 1978, in an
action in which Margaret Bentley was the plaintiff.   
Margaret Bentley was awarded custody of the two minor
children, with Jeffrey Bentley receiving reasonable rights
of visitation.  Visitation has been amended at various times
by agreement of the parties. The most recent order, dated
January 15, 1980, established specific and detailed
visitation rights and privileges.  Since their divorce in 1978,
the parties have returned to court on various occasions as a
result of their continuing disagreements over various
aspects of their relationship.  In this matter, Jeffrey Bentley
alleged that Margaret Bentley willfully denied him the
visitation rights established by the order of January 15,
1980.  Margaret Bentley denied having violated the
provisions of the visitation order, and asserted that Jeffrey
Bentley had used the period of visitation to afford him an
opportunity to instruct the children in the Jehovah's
Witnesses beliefs and dogma and to involve them in
Kingdom Hall activities contrary to her wishes and to the
general well-being of the children and their best interests.

At the time of marriage in 1970, both parties were of the
Catholic faith.  However, at some unspecified point in the
marriage prior to the divorce, Jeffrey Bentley joined the
Jehovah's Witnesses.  Margaret Bentley subsequently
halfheartedly joined her husband in observing the same
religion, although she did not regularly attend the Kingdom
Hall. [They probably joined just prior to October 1975, which
was the "date de jour" which the WatchTower Society was
predicting for Armageddon to occur.  From 1966 (when
prediction was initially began) until 1975, the Jehovah's
Witnesses doubled in numbers.]  Jeffrey Bentley remarried
a Jehovah's Witness in October 1980.

The two young children did not want to participate in the
Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs and practices. They did not
want to engage in bible studies at the father's local
Kingdom Hall, nor attend the religious conventions or
assemblies of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They were being
reared by Margaret Bentley in the Catholic faith.  She and
the children actively participated in and attended religious
services together on a regular basis and the children
received and accepted training in the church school.

In December 1980, the trial court ruled that there had been
no violation by Margaret Bentley of either the terms or
intent of its visitation order of January 15, 1980, stating in
part:

"Jeffrey B. has inferred that this court lacks the jurisdiction
to interfere with his rights as a father to direct his children's
religious education and training and it would invade his
constitutional rights contrary to the freedom of religion and
separation of church and State clauses of the Federal and
New York State Constitutions if the court does so.

"Having the custodial parent determine the religious
upbringing of a child is necessary in order to limit the
conflict and trauma on said child. In the present matter,
these children are emotionally strained and torn as a result
of the conflict of religious beliefs of their parents. It has
been difficult for the children to reconcile the teachings of
the Catholic Church with that of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The best interests of these children dictate that they be
subject to being reared in only one religion. Since the
parents are unable to agree on the subject, this court must
make a determination which is in the children's best
interest. As they grow and develop they may do as did their
father and change their choice of religion or choose none at
all, but it is clearly evident from the proof herein, they are
being emotionally and physically strained as a result of the
conflict of their parents' religious beliefs.

...

"... In light of the strained relationship between the parties
as evidenced by the many proceedings in this and other
courts and the decision in this proceeding, the order of this
court of January 15, 1980 shall be and hereby is modified
and amended by adding the following decretal provision:
'Ordered, that said respondent/father shall refrain from
instructing said children in the teachings of the Jehovah's
Witnesses and shall also refrain from taking said children to
any assemblies, meetings, conventions, religious services
or other social or religious activities of the Jehovah's
Witnesses during his periods of custodial visitation.'"

On appeal, Jeffrey Bentley contended that the trial court
erred in denying him the right to instruct his children in his
religion and that, under the circumstances, it should have
remained neutral.  He further contended that the Family
Court's "intrusion" violated his First Amendment right to
the free exercise of his religion.

The NY appellate court disagreed, stating in part:

"The Family Court's order should be affirmed. As a general
rule, it is the custodial parent who is the appropriate person
for determining the religious upbringing of the children. We
conclude that the court would be intruding on petitioner's
First Amendment rights were it to enjoin the noncustodial
parent from discussing religion with his child absent a
showing that the child will thereby be harmed. In the instant
matter, the record amply supports the court's finding that
the children were being 'harmed' by [Jeffrey Bentley's]
actions in instructing and involving them in the teachings of
the Jehovah's Witnesses. The 'best interests' of the
children is the threshold consideration in a custody
proceeding ... .  The Family Court was well within its broad
discretionary power in reaching its determination that the
best interests of these children dictate that they be reared
in only one religion. We find also without merit [Jeffrey
Bentley's] contention that he was denied due process by
the Family Court's refusal to allow cross-examination of the
Law Guardian concerning his interviews with the two
children. ... the interviews are privileged since the
relationship of the Law Guardian and the children is one of
"attorney-client" and, as such, is not subject to
cross-examination. Order affirmed"
Jehovah's Witnesses Lose in Court-Often....