Mom Says Court Forced Her Into Religious Parenting Sessions

The court took away her twin sons when the woman objected and quit.

A woman in New Mexico says she was forced into mandatory religious sessions last year after a court sent her to a counselor to help her take care of her twin 11-year-old boys.

"I walked into the session and the very first thing she [the counselor] said to me was, 'I start my sessions by praying,'" Holly Salzman told KRQE 13 in Albuquerque. "When I expressed my concerns that I didn't pray, she said, 'Well this is what I do,' and she proceeded to say a prayer out loud."

A court late last year assigned Salzman to 10 sessions with counselor Mary Pepper, who prides herself on valuing family. But Salzman said that when she arrived, Pepper promoted explicitly religious values.

"She then proceeds to get into an argument the very first session that we had and asks me if I'm pro-life or pro-choice. Well, I tell her I'm pro-choice and she proceeds to chastise me," Salzman told The Huffington Post in an interview, also noting that she identified as secular or atheist.

After that first session, Salzman complained to the court about Pepper. When the court didn't respond, Salzman stopped attending sessions. Consequently, the court took away her children and returned them only once she had completed the assigned meetings.

"For four weeks I had zero contact with my children," Salzman said.

"I served my country [in the Air Force from 1996-2000]," she added. "And you're going to treat me like this? Is this really what I served my country for?"

Pepper's sessions involved handouts with psalms printed on them and an assignment requiring Salzman to answer the question: "What is God to me?" Pepper insisted to KRQE that she provides a "secular program" if people aren't "open."

Religion has increasingly become a flash point in custody cases, with conflict often arising when interfaith couples split or a parent converts after divorce. In 2003, a father in Alabama won custody of his daughter by arguing that her strict religious upbringing by her mother and stepfather was harmful to her. In Indiana in 2010, a father alleged that his shift away from Christianity to being agnostic caused him to lose custody of his children.

David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association, told The Huffington Post that this situation, "in which a parent seeking custody is sent to Christian counseling as a condition of getting custody," doesn't appear legal.

"I'm sure if it's challenged legally, the parent would see some sort of remedy," Niose said. He added: "If the court knew, it would be a pretty egregious violation of the mother's rights."

A court spokesman told KRQE he could not comment on pending cases, but said the court "does not refer parties to religious-based counseling."

This piece has been updated with additional comments from Salzman's interview with The Huffington Post.