MEYER v. MEYER was a 2001 Vermont Supreme Court
decision. Thanks go out to Carolyn R. Wah, Associate
General Counsel, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of
New York, Patterson, New York, who acted as co-counsel
for Lee R. Meyer in this losing effort, and thus gave the
world this glimpse into the real world of Jehovah's
Witnesses.

Lee R. Meyer and Erika Meyer divorced in April 1995.  
Father and mother stipulated to joint parental rights and
responsibilities for their two daughters, Hannah and Hillary.  
In June 1999, Erika Meyer moved to modify the parties'
original divorce decree, seeking both sole legal and sole
physical rights and responsibilities for the children.
Following an eleven-day hearing, the family court granted
her motion to modify, ordering that mother have sole rights
and responsibilities. Lee R. Meyer appealed to the Supreme
Court of Vermont.  The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed,
stating in part:

"Father first argues that mother failed to demonstrate a
real, substantial and unanticipated change in circumstances
as required ... for modification. Specifically, he argues that
the parties have consistently disagreed about major issues
concerning the girls since the time of divorce, and that he
and mother have never been able to communicate
effectively. Thus, he argues under our holding in Gates v.
Gates mother failed to meet the jurisdictional threshold for
modification. ... (finding no abuse of discretion by trial court
in concluding that continued antagonism between parties
on issues concerning the children was not a change in
circumstances).

"... the standard of review regarding a trial court's finding of
changed circumstances is a deferential one. The trial
court's determination is a matter of discretion. ... Thus, we
will not disturb the court's determination unless its exercise
of discretion was on grounds or for reasons clearly
untenable, or the exercise of discretion was to a clearly
unreasonable extent. Gates, ... .

"Our review of the record reveals that this case is easily
distinguishable from Gates. First, both mother and father
testified that they disagree on just about every major issue
concerning the children, including religion, education,
extra-curricular activities, whether the children should be
participating in counseling and with whom, childcare, and
how mother and father should be communicating about the
children. ...  Second, mother's testimony chronicled a
significant change in the parties' dealings with one another,
notwithstanding father's conclusory testimony to the
contrary. Mother testified to extensive cooperation on
issues regarding Hannah and Hillary immediately following
the divorce, including shared access to one another's
homes, the exchange and transport of the children's
belongings between the two homes, frequent and open
communication between mother and father without
limitation, joint parent-teacher meetings, and flexibility
about time and contact with each parent. Her testimony
then outlined a significant change for the worse in these
areas starting in the latter half of 1996, including father
prohibiting the girls from contacting mother while they
were in his care, prohibiting mother from entering his
home, and refusing to communicate with mother except in
writing. Father also requested separate parent-teacher
meetings - on one occasion specifically asking the school
not to invite mother to a meeting he had arranged with the
school principal, Hannah's teacher and Hannah's guidance
counselor - and insisted that the children have separate and
duplicate possessions for each household. Finally, the trial
court based its finding of changed circumstances in part on
the effect of the parties' disagreements on the children,
particularly Hannah. Even if the parties had anticipated
disagreeing continually as father contends, the effect of this
on the children was not necessarily anticipated. Given this
state of the record, the family court did not abuse its
discretion by concluding that mother had sufficiently
demonstrated a real, substantial and unanticipated change
in circumstances justifying modification.

"Father next argues that the portion of the court's order
providing that he not bring Hannah and Hillary to any
Jehovah's Witness religious gatherings or attempt to raise
the girls as Jehovah's Witnesses is unconstitutional. He
further argues that any consideration by the trial court in
this case of his religious beliefs was in violation of the both
the Vermont and United States constitutions. Because
father never argued that mother's request for such a
provision in the court's final order was unconstitutional, nor
objected to the introduction of evidence on his religious
beliefs and practices on constitutional grounds, our review
on appeal is limited. ... We will reverse the family court's
order in such circumstances only if there exists a
'fundamental miscarriage of justice that we cannot
overlook.'  We cannot say that there has been one in this
case for several reasons.

"First, consideration of father's religion by the trial court
was not unconstitutional per se. As we noted in Varnum,
courts may take into account a parent's religious practices
when making a custodial determination if there is evidence
that the practices have a direct and negative impact on a
child's physical or mental health. ... Mother presented
extensive evidence that the conflicting practices and rules
in each household that stemmed from her and father's
disparate religious beliefs were causing Hannah and Hillary
to experience extreme confusion and anxiety. For instance,
Hannah's teachers testified to Hannah's struggle over
participation in birthday and holiday activities at school, a
practice that father's religion, that of the Jehovah's
Witnesses, prohibits, but a practice that mother
encouraged. Hannah's third grade teacher testified to an
incident in which father came to the school one day to
discuss Hannah's participation in such activities, indicating
that he did not want Hannah participating and that the
teacher should inform him if she was. The teacher went on
to describe how Hannah confronted her the next day
extremely upset, and told her that she had made the
situation for Hannah worse, asking "why did you tell him?"
(about Hannah occasionally participating). One of Hillary's
teachers testified that Hillary also appeared to struggle with
the decision of whether to participate in birthday and
holiday activities as well, but it was mostly confined to the
beginning of the school year.

"Mother also testified to symptoms of anxiety in both girls -
Hannah experiencing nightmares, stomach aches, and a
constricted throat; Hillary being very clingy and sucking her
thumb. Hannah's pediatrician had ruled out organic causes
for her physical symptoms after seeing her on two
occasions, and indicated in her testimony that she thought
the symptoms had been caused by anxiety. She stated that
she recommended counseling to mother for Hannah. The
counselor who had been seeing Hannah at mother's
request - prior to her termination by father - testified that
she considered Hannah to be suffering from anxiety and
attributed it to Hannah's conflicted situation, including the
conflict of mother and father's religious beliefs and
practices.

"Based on this and other evidence, the court made specific
findings regarding the negative effects on the children of
mother's and father's differing sets of beliefs, including the
children's feelings of disloyalty, guilt, confusion, and
anxiety. Thus, not only was evidence of harm presented,
but the trial court made specific findings that the conflicting
beliefs and practices in each household were having a
palpable negative impact on the children, and would
continue to do so. ...

"Second, there was extensive evidence of father
attempting to alienate Hannah and Hillary from mother that
independently supports the court's disposition in this case.
Without chronicling it at length, there was evidence from
mother that father refused to communicate with her in
person on repeated occasions in front of the children,
including incidents of father refusing to answer the door for
her [kinda ironic for a Jehovah's Witness not to be
answering their door], refusing to roll down the car window
while she attempted to talk to father at an exchange of the
children, communicating to her through stepmother while
he stood by silently during exchanges, and hanging up the
phone on her. Father also prohibited the children from
communicating with mother while they were in his care.
Several other witnesses also testified to father's attitude
toward mother - one of Hannah's teachers stated that in a
meeting she had with father and stepmother at the
beginning of the school year, father painted mother in a
negative light, and Hannah's counselor indicated that father
expressed to her his desire that mother not be part of his
family life at all, that he did not consider her part of his
family system.

"Father himself had indicated in a letter that he did not want
any contact between mother and the children when they
were with him because he found it "disruptive." When
asked why he would not honor mother's request that the
girls not call stepmother "mommy," father responded that
he did not consider her request "justified" and thought it
was merely the result of "jealousy." Such actions and
efforts on the part of father not only prevented the parties
from effectively co-parenting - necessitating the
modification of that arrangement at issue in this appeal - but
also weighed against making father the sole custodian for
the children. ... The religious issues aside, the evidence at
trial painted a stark picture of attempts at parental alienation.


"Third, regarding the provision that father not involve the
children in his religious observances or raise the children
as Witnesses, the court was merely making explicit
mother's decision as the custodial parent charged with
legal responsibility for the children. ... Mother specifically
requested that such a provision be included in the order in
the event she was granted legal rights and responsibilities
for the girls. Therefore, the court was not in the position of
picking a religion for the children, but was only giving effect
to mother's decision on that issue. Nor does the provision
prevent father from exercising his religion on his own - in
fact the court structured the visitation to avoid conflicts
between father's religious meetings and his time with the
girls. Considered in light of the evidence of harm discussed
above, the provision is not inconsistent with constitutional
principles. ... Therefore, there has been no fundamental
miscarriage of justice requiring us to reverse the order of
the family court.

"...  Father points to no evidence in this case that either
party to this custody proceeding had anything other than
the children's best interest in mind in the course of the
litigation. ... Consequently, we cannot say that the court's
failure to appoint a guardian ad litem for Hannah and Hillary
was an abuse of discretion or rendered the proceedings so
flawed as to require reversal of the family court's
disposition."
Jehovah's Witnesses Lose in Court-Often....