THOMAS v. THOMAS was a 1956 Missouri appellate
decision. Famous WatchTower Society attorney, and former
WatchTower Vice-President, Hayden C. Covington
represented Lillian June Thomas in this appeal.

Willard B. Thomas and Lillian June Thomas were married in
October, 1945, after Willard Thomas was discharged from
the United States Navy at the end of World War II. Willard
received a small disability pension due to injuries received
in the war.  Lillian June Thomas had been married before,
and she had a 3 year old son. Lillian's ex-husband paid no
child support, and Lillian did not work outside the home. In
1946, Willard bought and paid for a home in St. Joseph,
Missouri with savings bonds he had purchased during the
war. Two sons were born to the couple.

The couple lived together amicably until July 1950, when
Lillian June Thomas joined the Jehovah's Witnesses.  After
joining the Jehovah's Witnesses, her religion became
Lillian's priority. She went from house to house distributing
pamphlets and preaching the doctrines of the WatchTower
Society; sometimes taking the couple's children with her.  
She, sometimes accompanied by one or more children,
distributed pamphlets on the streets of St. Joseph. She
attended meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses at Kingdom Hall
in St. Joseph. She had attended four WatchTower
Conventions held in other cities. Additionally, Lillian took
the couple's children to the meetings of the Jehovah's
Witnesses, and she was training them to believe and act as
Jehovah's Witnesses.

Around the same time Lillian joined the Jehovah's
Witnesses, Willard began to work as a police officer in St.
Joseph. Willard did not believe in the doctrines of
Jehovah's Witnesses.  He also was opposed to having his
children taught WatchTower doctrines.  He objected to the
influence exercised by Lillian over his children in getting
them to accept WatchTower interpretations, particularly as
such pertained to saluting the American flag.  Willard
requested Lillian not to teach WatchTower doctrines to their
children, but she continued to do so. There was quarreling
in the family as the result of this difference of opinion.

In September 1954, Willard had had enough, and he moved
out of the marital residence. He moved in with his parents
in St. Joseph, where he later also brought his youngest son.
The older son evidently refused to live with him. Willard
filed for divorce that same month, and the case was tried in
late October, 1954.  The trial court granted Willard a divorce,
and awarded him the general custody of both of his natural
children. Lillian received visitations every
Saturday-Sunday, and the right to visit the children at all
reasonable times. Her motion for a new trial was overruled,
and she appealed.

At trial, Willard testified:

"Q. How many hours during the day or week would she be
absent from your home in connection with this religious
A. Three or four times a week from half a day to a full day.
She stated that sometimes she had been over in Kansas
recruiting members, other times here in town getting in her
hours. Usually she went on Sunday evening, Tuesday
evening and Friday evening. That was meeting night. She
stated she went down there. Where she went I don't know
but she was gone mostly every Sunday, Tuesday and
Friday evening from 7:00 until almost midnight.

"Q. What about the children?
A. When I was there I would keep them. ... I would take care
of them when I was working the midnight to morning shift.
When I was working 4:00 to 12:00 she took them with her ... .

"Q. And that continued for a number of years?
A. That is right ... . When I was working 4:00 to 12:00 I didn't
know where she went. She said she went to the hall ... . I
drove past there several times and I saw her in the hall
several times. ... Sometimes she missed and didn't go out
but may be once or twice during the week, but she was
pretty determined and she made it most of the time."

Lillian testified that she only averaged about two hours per
week doing literature distribution. She also testified that
she attended one-hour and two-hour meetings at the
Kingdom Hall on Tuesday night, Friday night and Sunday
evenings. Willard had testified that: "Three or four times a
week she wasn't there to prepare my meals. I never knew
when I went home whether she would be there or not.
Lillian countered: "When I knew that he was coming home
... I was always there" to prepare his meals".

Willard testified that he performed his duties as a husband
and father to the best of his ability; that he supported his
stepson, Gary, for nine years; that he paid all of the
household and family expenses; that he paid all of the bills
because defendant "never had time, she said, to pay
them"; that he paid for "her makeup and everything else";
and that he gave defendant $6 every two weeks "to spend
on whatever she wanted"; that after they moved into the
house on South 11th Street, he bought all of the groceries
and carried them home. Willard testified that Lillian had a
charge account at a local dry goods store, for which he paid
the bill.

Lillian testified that her Jehovah's Witnesses friends had to
give her used clothing. She testified that Willard gave her
only $3 every two weeks until she threatened to stop
washing and ironing his clothes. She demanded the $6
every two weeks to do so. She further testified that Willard
forbade her to draw any money out of the bank without his
permission:  "If I had I would have gotten a beating." [Uh,
then why didn't he beat you for not washing and ironing his

Willard testified that on many occasions Lillian cursed him
and called him vile names. She called him "an unbelieving
son of a bitch atheist", even though Willard was not an
atheist. Willard testified: "She kept telling [the children] that
I was no good, because I carried a gun. ...  My boy ... eight
years old told me many times, 'You are no good, you carry
a gun.'"  Lillian denied everything.

Both parties testified "he said - she said" to an incident
over Willard's alleged taking of money Lillian had earned
selling berries, which she planned to use to travel to a
WatchTower Convention.

Willard testified to an incident when his dad, mother and
sister were visiting on one of Lillian's meeting nights. Lillian
started to her meeting, but then returned to the living room,
and said, "I am tired of your damned relations here. ... I
don't want any unbelievers here that don't believe in
Jehovah's Witnesses."  Lillian told Willard's sister: "You, I
hate more than any."  Lillian then lunged at the sister, and
Willard grabbed her to prevent a fight. Willard said his
family never visited in his home again. Willard's family all
testified to the incident, and Lillian didn't even bother to
deny it.

Willard testified that when the Star Spangled Banner was
played on the television, "She started beating on pans and
booing, and most of the time jerked the plug out of the wall.
...  She would grab [the children] and take them in the other
room."  She said that the television set was the work of
Satan. Every time a preacher or a Catholic priest came on,
or the flag was shown, she would turn it off or yank the plug

In July 1953, Willard took the family on a road trip to
Yellowstone National Park.  Lillian was a pain on the trip
because she had wanted to attend a WatchTower
Convention in New York City, instead. She also complained
about the trip to Colorado Springs the next summer.

The night Willard moved out in September 1954, the couple
had a physical altercation after Lillian came home from a
meeting at around 10:00PM. Both parties gave widely
different versions of the incident. Lillian also testified to
numerous other occasions in which she alleged that Willard
struck her.  She also testified to numerous times of being
cursed at and called bad names. The oldest son testified in
support of Lillian.  Willard denied most of such. There were
many other charges and counter-charges, and denials by
each as accused.  Several of Lillian's Jehovah's Witnesses
friends testified on her behalf, while Willard's police chief
and neighbor testified on his behalf.

On appeal, prepared by Hayden Covington, Lillian
contended that "upon a review of the whole record this
court should reach the conclusion that defendant was
entitled to the divorce and the plaintiff was not entitled
thereto"; that "the court abused its discretion when
custody of the minor children was awarded to the plaintiff";
and that "the judgment of the court below denied defendant
her right of freedom of worship and of religion, contrary to
Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution of Missouri and the
First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States
Constitution." They further contended that the "sole basis
of the decree of divorce was that defendant left the house
'whenever she felt like it and over the protest of her
husband' to worship Almighty God Jehovah"; and that "the
record in this case shows that the only reason the children
were taken away from defendant was that of her religion";
and consequently that the judgment appealed from denied
defendant her constitutional "rights of freedom of worship
and of religion".
The appellate court first nixed Covington's constitutional
violation claims pointing out that no such type claim had
been made at trial for their review. The court went on to
affirm the trial court's ruling, stating in part:

"While each divorce action based on alleged general
indignities must be determined on its own facts, the courts
have said repeatedly that indignities, such as to warrant the
granting of a divorce, ordinarily must amount to a
continuous course of conduct. A single act, or occasional
acts, will not suffice. The acts relied upon must amount to a
species of mental cruelty, and must evidence a course of
conduct by one of the parties toward the other whereby the
other's condition is rendered intolerable through acts of
such character and frequency as to be subversive of the
family relation. ...
"In the case at bar there was a direct conflict in the
testimony on almost every charge and countercharge. If
plaintiff's evidence be accepted as true, he was entitled to a
decree of divorce. Plaintiff's evidence, as a whole, was
substantial. It disclosed a course of conduct on defendant's
part extending over a period of about four years, the
cumulative effect of which may well have rendered
plaintiff's condition intolerable. It is our duty, of course, to
review the whole record and reach our own conclusions in
divorce cases, but where, as here, the decision depends
largely upon the credibility of the witness, we must give
due deference to the conclusions of the trial judge who saw
and heard all of the witnesses, and we are not authorized to
set aside the judgment unless clearly erroneous. ...
Applying this rule, we defer to the conclusion of the trial
court that plaintiff was the innocent and injured party and
therefore entitled to a decree of divorce.

"We turn to defendant's contention that the court erred in
awarding the custody of the parties' children to plaintiff. As
stated, after the separation plaintiff took the younger boy,
Stephen, to the home of plaintiff's parents and Stephen has
been living there since that time. Plaintiff's mother testified
that she was employed 'in the daytime' at
'Montgomery-Ward'; that her husband did not work and was
at home 'all the time'; and that plaintiff always stayed at
home with Stephen when he was not on duty. Plaintiff
testified that he was living with his parents; that their home
was a modern six-room house with three bedrooms,
located a block and a half from Webster School; that if he
were awarded the custody of the children they would be
'properly supervised and have all their care and affection,
and one of us will be with them at all times'; that his mother
had been taking Stephen to Sunday School at the Second
Presbyterian Church; that his mother was a member of a
church at Halleck, Missouri, and about ten miles from St.
Joseph; that when he was a boy he attended services at a
Presbyterian Church; that when he was in the Navy he
attended church services every Sunday, and continued: 'I
study the Bible but I haven't been attending church.' As we
have seen, at the time of the trial, defendant, Gary and the
parties' older son, Dennis Michael, were living in the home
at 3738 South 11th Street. Defendant testified that if she
were awarded the custody of the parties' children she
would need money for their support, and that she 'could get
a job very easy'. She did not say who would care for the
children when she was working.

"Defendant insists that the best interests of a child of
tender years requires that it be placed in the custody of its
mother. Ordinarily, as between the father and mother, the
mother will be awarded the custody of such a child unless it
be shown that she is unfit to take charge of the child or that
she cannot provide it with a suitable home. It is well settled,
however, that 'the findings of the trial court in matters
involving the custody of a minor child of divorced parents,
while not binding upon the appellate court which must
review the record for itself, are nevertheless not to be
lightly disturbed, and will be deferred to unless the
appellate court is firmly convinced that the welfare of the
child requires some other disposition.' ... Under the record
in this case, we cannot say that the trial court abused its
discretion in awarding the custody of the children to
Jehovah's Witnesses Lose in Court-Often....