WILLIS v. WILLIS was a 2002 Ohio appellate court decision.  
Although the published decision did not specifically state
that Chris Willis was a Jehovah's Witness, or studying to
become a member, there are hints throughout which seem
to indicate that such is a good possibility.  It is becoming
more and more frequent that some judges are refusing to
identify Jehovah's Witnesses as Jehovah's Witnesses in
published decisions.  Whatever was Rhonda Willis's
connection to the Jehovah's Witnesses, if any, is uncertain.
Chris Willis and Rhonda Stegner Willis were divorced for
the second time in March 1998. They had three minor
children. Under the parties' shared parenting agreement,
Rhonda was named residential parent for school purposes
and Chris was granted "Schedule B" visitation, with an
additional Sunday per month from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. Except
on a few occasions, Chris had not exercised his extra
Sunday visitation.
Between August 2000 and January 2001, both parties filed
several motions. In particular, Rhonda filed motions to find
Chris in contempt for failing to pay his portion of the
children's uncovered medical bills and for failing to comply
with his "Schedule B" visitation. Rhonda also filed a motion
to modify and/or restrict Chris' visitation and a request that
he undergo psychological counseling.  In turn, Chris filed
motions to find Rhonda in contempt for failing to comply
with his "Schedule B" visitation and for failing to keep him
informed of the children's medical needs and
extracurricular activities. Chris also filed a motion to
increase his visitation. The parties and all three children
were subsequently evaluated at the Children's Diagnostic
Center, Inc. A hearing on the parties' motions and a report
from the CDC revealed the following facts:
Rhonda Willis lived in Richmond, Indiana, and was engaged
to Michael Simmons, since January 2001. Chris Willis lived
in Middletown, Ohio, and was not involved in a relationship.
In fact, Chris still considered himself biblically married to
Rhonda and continued to wear his wedding band. Chris has
told his children as well as Michael Simmons that he is still
biblically married to Rhonda even though he is no longer
married to her legally. Chris has referred to Simmons as the
"imposter" and once asked the children to refer to
Simmons as such. On two occasions, Chris told Simmons
that he wanted to set up an appointment with Simmons,
Simmons' minister, and himself so they could discuss
Simmons' relationship with Rhonda. Chris testified that
Simmons' presence imposes on Chris' relationship with
Rhonda, preventing any possible reconciliation.

When the children are with their father, they regularly
attend church on Sundays and engage in extensive bible
study. Part of the bible study concerns passages in the
bible about adultery. Although he denies calling Rhonda an
adulteress, Chris had on many occasions told the children
that if Rhonda and Simmons were having sex, they would
be committing adultery. Chris has also told Ciara, his then
ten-year-old daughter, that he does not want her to be an
adulteress. Chris believes it is his right to discuss such
issues with the children. Chris does not believe that such
discussion affects the children. Chris denied calling Rhonda
a "slut" or a "whore." He admitted, however, telling the
children that their mother is not appropriately dressed and
asking them "what they thought about what kind of wife she
[had] been to [him]" since the divorce. Chris testified that
the children were very close to their mother and that
Rhonda was a good mother.

Rhonda testified that Chris could accept their 1998 divorce;
that he was very bitter; and that he was taking the hostility
out on the children. Rhonda also testified that Chris was a
good man who loved his children. Rhonda testified that the
children loved their father, but that they were fearful of him
and that they did not like some of the things he did and
said. Rhonda testified that the children often act up, start to
cry, or work themselves into physical illness, especially
Ciara, at the thought of going to visit their father. Rhonda
stated that she often has to stop the car when driving to
Chris' house to hug the children and to reassure them that
everything will be all right. Rhonda testified that upon
returning from Chris' house, the children are very upset,
very clingy, and in need of attention. While she believes
Chris' visitation with the children should be supervised,
Rhonda does not want to take Chris' parental rights away.

Chris testified that when the children are dropped off at his
house, they were happy to see him and hugged him. Chris
stated that the children loved him and that they did not
seem to be afraid of him. Rather, Chris believes the
children are brainwashed by Rhonda who is consistently
trying to drive a wedge between the children and him. Chris
does not believe he has a problem with Ciara and describes
their relationship as normal. Chris described his
relationships with Cody and Chloe as good and very good
respectively. Chris admits he is not a perfect parent, that he
has shortcomings, and that he could be more patient with
and more encouraging to the children. Chris testified he
would refuse to participate in any court-ordered or
voluntary counseling, including family counseling, because
he does not need it.

Two fellow churchgoers testified on behalf of Chris. They
both testified that they never saw the children afraid of their
father. One churchgoer stated that he had never observed
Chris hit his children, or be mean or harsh to them. The
other churchgoer observed signs of affection between the
children and their father such as kissing and holding hands.
Beverly Willis, Chris' mother, testified that Chris is a stern
but very good father who is doing an exceptional job with
the children. Willis testified that Ciara has commented, at
times, about being in the middle of her parents' dispute.
Beverly Willis stated that neither Ciara nor Chris need
counseling. Remarkably, despite the parties' animosity,
visitation has continued in substantial compliance with the
shared parenting agreement.

During the hearing, upon questioning by the children's
guardian ad litem, Chris also testified about the following
incident which took place at his house: upon receiving his
copy of the CDC report, Chris became upset about some of
the children's allegations about him. Chris admitted that
when the children walked in the front door for their
weekend visitation with him, he started videotaping them,
especially Ciara, asking them to recant some of the
statements that were in the CDC report. Chris testified that
he was feeling falsely accused, and that videotaping the
children was the only way to defend himself. Chris stated
that videotaping the children and asking them to recant had
no more  of a negative impact on the children than
someone else talking to them about it. Chris agreed,
however, that the video camera could have a negative
effect. Chris also testified that it was not inappropriate for
him to discuss the false allegations in the CDC report with
the children. Doing so did not put the children on the spot
any "more than the psychologist puts them on the spot."

During the hearing, the children's guardian ad litem testified
and was cross-examined by counsel for both parties. Upon
order of the magistrate, her testimony was subsequently
sealed. The day after the hearing, the magistrate
interviewed the children in camera. By decision filed April
13, 2001, the magistrate granted Rhonda's contempt motion
regarding the children's unpaid medical expenses, granted
Chris' contempt motion against Rhonda for failure to keep
him informed of the children's extracurricular activities,
denied both parties' contempt motion for failing to comply
with the Schedule B visitation, and denied Chris' motion to
increase his visitation. The magistrate also restricted Chris'
visitation such that all visitation "must be supervised by his
parents, with their presence in Mr. Willis' home or within
their home, at all times. ... Mr. Willis is required to contact
Dr. Walters [of the CDC] for a recommendation for family
counseling for himself and for his children. He is to follow
through with any recommendations of Dr. Walters.  ...  If Mr.
Willis refuses to follow the recommendation of Dr. Walters
and to participate in counseling, ... I recommend that his
visitation rights be suspended until further order of the

Chris Willis filed objections to the magistrate's decision. By
entry filed August 9, 2001, the trial court overruled Chris'
objections and affirmed the magistrate's decision. On
appeal, Chris raised four assignments of error.  In part, the
decision states:

"... the parties and all three children were evaluated at CDC.
All five persons were interviewed separately and each
parent was observed with the children. The CDC report
states in relevant part that:
'Mr. Willis believes that Rhonda Stegner is harassing him.
He believes that his strengths as a parent have to do with
his stability, his ability to set a good example for his
children, his love for his children and his attempts to
provide activities for them. His weaknesses are that he's
sometimes not as patient as he should. He believes he
should be more encouraging  and has '"said things about
their mother I shouldn't."'

'While [Mr. Willis'] approach to the test suggest some
defensiveness and difficulties looking within himself, this
didn't invalidate the test results. Yet, such an approach
indicates a tendency to attribute blame and responsibility
onto others with little appreciation for the role that he might
play in problematic areas in his life. Mr. Willis identifies his
primary difficulties as a parent as impatience, and lack [of]
encouragement. His strong belief system might not allow
him to be as flexible with three different children who might
need to have the expectations for them adapted according
to their needs, interests, social skills, and cognitive ability.
While Mr. Willis verbalizes some recognition of this, he
attributes most of the difficulties in his relationships with
his children to others (i.e., Ms. Stegner and her mother). His
children consistently described him as critical, angry, and
punishing. While attempting to communicate important
family values, he also has to be able to nurture
independence, and reward successes as well as make his
children aware of their mistakes, and enhance feelings  of

'Chris Willis was observed with all three of his children. For
the most part, the interaction could be best described as all
three children engaged in separate, parallel play with Mr.
Willis engaging in conversation with each about issues in
their lives. The most animated of the three and the one who
sought out the greatest contact with father was Chloe. She
appeared most comfortable with her father. Ciara appeared
the least comfortable although it's not clear to what extent
this was affected by her physical health [she was ill that
day] as opposed to emotional distance from her father.

'Ms. Stegner presents as highly invested in the welfare of
her children and expresses concerns about their anxiety
and apparent fear of their father. Certainly, the interviews
with the children as well as observed interactions at [CDC]
seem to support her report. As such, she appears to be in
touch with her children's feelings. For the most part, the
children appeared comfortable with their mother and
appeared to enjoy her attention."'
"With regard to Ciara, the CDC report noted that "Ciara also
describes being placed in the middle of her parents' conflict
by her father and adds that she 'don't feel good about it.'  
While she admits that she loves 'my mom and dad,' she
doesn't like much of her father's behavior. Unfortunately,
Ciara feels that it's 'all my fault my dad is mean,' and she
has begun to internalize father's criticism as a sign of her

"The CDC report concluded in relevant part that 'the most
consistent comment by all three children is their perception
of their mother as warm and nurturing and father as critical
and punishing.' Mr. Willis has no insight into his social
stimulus value and his relationship with his children. He has
little awareness of the impact that his anger has on their
feelings for him, and his criticism has (at least in the case of
Ciara) begun to affect her self-esteem, resulting in
internalized feelings of defectiveness (i.e., that she's been
the cause of father's anger and meanness). Ciara is a bright,
capable, and well-behaved youngster who does well in
school. She should feel good about herself and her
accomplishments, not doubting herself.

"Mr. Willis attributes his difficulties in his relationships with
his children to his ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law rather than
accepting responsibility for his behavior and recognizing
the need to change his parenting style. Parents must tell
children what behavior needs to be changed without
communicating that they're inherently bad or defective. Mr.
Willis would benefit from treatment that would assist him in
looking within himself, separating his own anger at his
ex-wife from his behavior and toward treatment of his
children. He needs to achieve a better balance between
setting limits and communicating his value system while
not demeaning his children and damaging self-esteem. His
own anger and difficulty accepting the divorce needs to be
parental business, and the children don't need to be drawn
into a situation in which they must choose between one
parent or the other. It would appear to be in the best
interest of the children to have Mr. Willis participate in
parent training in order to ensure the emotional safety and
welfare of [the children].

"Upon hearing the parties' testimony and the guardian ad
litem's testimony, reviewing the CDC report, and
interviewing the children in camera, the magistrate found
that 'Mr. Willis' own testimony confirms [part of the CDC
report]; Mr. Willis expressed little or no concern about his
discussion of sex in relation to bible studies and his
repeatedly calling the mother of his children an adulteress.
He has little or no appreciation or understanding as how
this impacts his children based on their respective 'needs,
interests, social skills and cognitive ability.' [With regard to
the videotaping incident], once again, Mr. Willis had little or
no comprehension or understanding that he had done
anything that might be harmful to his children. Rather, he
felt it was his right 'to set the record straight' and require
the children to recant these statements. Mr. Willis refuses
to participate in any counseling or evaluation, nor does he
wish to participate in any family counseling. The Guardian
Ad Litem strongly recommended some family counseling
for Mr. Willis, with an introduction of the children into the
counseling process.

"The magistrate also found that 'it was clear from the
testimony and through my in camera interviews that the
person who is primarily being affected by the actions of Mr.
Willis and the conflict of their parents is Ciara. I ordinarily
do not refer to anything said during an in camera interview.
I believe, in this case, it is necessary to refer to [the fact
that] all three children believe that Mr. Willis is unfairly
critical of Ciara.'

"After thoroughly reviewing the CDC report and the
testimony presented at the hearing, and after carefully
reviewing the transcript of the children's in camera
interviews and the testimony of the guardian ad litem
submitted under seal, we find that the trial court did not
abuse its discretion by denying Chris' motion to increase
visitation and by ordering that his visitation be supervised
and that he attend counseling. We further find that the trial
court's foregoing decision is not against the manifest
weight of the evidence.

"Chris also argues that the trial court erred by failing to
appoint a third party to supervise his visitation. As
previously noted, the trial court ordered that Chris'
visitation be supervised by his parents at all times, either in
his home or in their home. However, Chris' parents notified
his attorney that they were unwilling to be used in such a
fashion and that as a result, they refused to supervise
Chris' visitation. The trial court never appointed another

"We agree with Chris that because of his parents' refusal to
supervise his visitation and the trial court's failure to
appoint another supervisor, Chris' visitation rights have
essentially been terminated, albeit temporarily. We
therefore remand the matter with instructions to the trial
court to appoint another supervisor. In light of all of the
foregoing, Chris' second assignment of error is overruled in
part and sustained in part.


"Under this assignment of error, Chris argues that the trial
court based its decision to restrict his visitation solely on
his strongly held religious beliefs in violation of his
constitutional right of freedom of religion under the First
Amendment to the United States Constitution. Chris claims
that the videotaping incident cannot be taken into account
because he was simply trying to assert his due process
rights. Chris also claims that his comments to the children
about Rhonda's relationship with Simmons 'are simply a
reflection of his religious views, which include the Biblical
teachings on adultery,' and as such cannot be taken into

"The First Amendment has never been interpreted as an
absolute proscription on the governmental regulation of
religious practices. ... While 'in addition to their free
exercise rights, parents have a fundamental right to
educate their children, including the right to communicate
their moral and religious values, a parent's actions are not
insulated from the domestic relations court's inquiry just
because they are based upon religious beliefs, especially
actions that will harm the child's mental or physical health.'  
Pater ... (1992) [See case below.] Thus, a parent may not
shield his actions from the court's scrutiny by claiming
religious motivations for those actions.

"There is no question that the paramount and overriding
interest of [Ohio state law] is the best interests of the child
and that it is the court's function to see that the child's best
interests are protected. As a result, 'a domestic relations
court may consider the religious practices of the parents in
order to protect the best interests of a child.' ... 'This
obligation of the court to consider the best interests of the
children serves to protect them from emotionally unstable
and fanatically misguided parents, while simultaneously
safeguarding the parents' fundamental constitutional
freedom to raise their children as they deem proper.' ...

"This court has previously determined that a claim of
violation of religious rights should be considered pursuant
to a three-part test adopted by the Ohio Supreme Court ...
'The test is first, whether a defendant's religious beliefs are
sincerely held; second, whether the regulation at issue
infringes upon a defendant's constitutional right to freely
engage in the religious practices; and third, whether the
state has demonstrated a compelling interest for
enforcement of the regulation and that the regulation is
written in the least restrictive means.' ...

"Chris describes himself as a devout Christian who firmly
believes in a literal reading of the Bible. [This wording is
often used of JWs in court decisions.] We can concede that
Chris' religious beliefs are sincere, but upon thoroughly
reviewing the magistrate's decision, we find that Chris'
argument that the restriction on his visitation rights violated
his constitutional rights does not meet the second part of
the test.

"Chris fails to satisfy the second part of the three-part test
because he has not demonstrated that the restricted
visitation infringes upon his constitutional right to freely
engage in the Christian faith or that it interferes with his
freedom to direct the upbringing and religious education of
the children. We acknowledge that the magistrate's
decision refers to Chris' extensive bible study with the
children which involves discussions about adultery and
persons who are adulterers. The magistrate's decision also
contains a statement, supported by the record, that Chris
'expressed little or no concern about his discussion of sex
in relation to bible studies and his repeatedly calling
[Rhonda] an adulteress.'

"Upon reviewing the magistrate's decision as affirmed by
the trial court, we find that it addressed the visitation issue
in the context of the children's best interests, and not based
upon Chris' religious beliefs. Unlike in Pater where the
noncustodial parent was prohibited from teaching or
exposing the child to the Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs
during the parent's visitation, Chris is still free to instruct
the children on his religious beliefs and to teach them as he
sees fit. Certainly, the mere fact that visitation must be
supervised and that he must attend counseling absolutely
does not prevent him from 'providing a moral upbringing for
his children by sharing his religious beliefs.' Nor is Chris
prohibited or otherwise hindered from practicing his
religious beliefs.

"Having found that Chris failed to satisfy the second part of
the tripartite test, we need not determine whether he
satisfied the third part. We therefore reject Chris' argument
that the trial court violated his constitutional rights under
the First Amendment by restricting his visitation. Chris'
third  assignment of error is overruled.
Jehovah's Witnesses Lose in Court-Often....