Judge Bars Divorced Man from Taking His Kids to Mormon Services

Two years ago, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Budoff decreed that Richard Franco could not take his children to a Mormon church.

Never mind that Franco had been a Mormon his whole life. Or that on weekends when he had custody of his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, the extended Franco clan attended Sunday services together. Nope, Judge Budoff ordered in writing that the Franco kids' "only religious training shall be in the Catholic faith and that they not be taken to an LDS church or LDS church training."

I didn't know judges could do that. But they can, clearly. Budoff's decision was upheld by the appellate court in December. More recently, this spring, the Arizona Supreme Court took a pass, refusing to give Franco so much as a hearing.

And the appeals court didn't just rule against Franco — it socked him with a $14,000 bill for his ex-wife's attorney fees.

Reading that, you might wonder whether Richard Franco was a bad father, or at least a bad Mormon. Maybe a polygamist in Colorado City, forcing his kids into early marriages and unflattering hairstyles.

Rest assured: This guy is about as mainstream as they come. The 44-year-old lives in Mesa, works in finance, and volunteers as a coach of his son's football team. He and his wife were married 13 years before she filed for divorce in 2006.

Reading the court file, it's clear that Judge Budoff found Franco abrasive, arrogant, and annoying, which certainly seems possible. (In our conversations, he's always been perfectly pleasant, but he swears like a sailor — and I couldn't help but notice that his e-mail address begins with "macho.")

But Budoff never found Franco to be an unfit parent. The children's parenting coordinator, in fact, described the kids as "thriving, intelligent, and articulate" and said that they "remain bonded to both their parents," despite a difficult divorce.

So why did the judge need to step in save the kids from their father's religion?

In Budoff's own words, to "avoid further confusion and conflict in the children's lives."

The children, it seems, felt anxious about their father's request that they attend church services with him. Well, cry me a river.

Don't misunderstand me here. I myself am a Catholic, and one who takes a dim view of the Latter-day Saints' theology. I don't let proselytizing Mormons into my living room for a reason: I think Joseph Smith was a total goon.

But since when do we have to protect children from the faith of their father? Trust me, even though the courts have affirmed Judge Budoff's decision, I'm not the only one who finds this a bit ridiculous.

"Without a finding that he was unfit, he was informed — make that, flat-out told — 'You can't expose these children to your religious beliefs,'" says Mike McCormack, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "That's over the top. Do we want that micromanagement from our judiciary?

"From our perspective, this was a real over-reach."

When Richard Franco first met his ex-wife, he was a good Mormon boy with a mission to Brazil under his belt. She was a good Catholic girl. And with that, their problems began.

That, perhaps, and the fact that neither was quite as "good" as their religion might strictly proscribe. They were pregnant before they were married, he tells me, leaving no time to discuss that crucial question: What faith do we choose for the children?

Do I compromise? Do you compromise? Is it wise for two people with such starkly different views of heaven and hell to start breeding?

Those questions were never discussed, let alone answered.

So they married, in a civil ceremony at a Mormon chapel. A son was born and then a daughter. And all the while, they fought about religion. "It was a standoff from day one," he says.

Divorce took a bad situation and turned it toxic. And while Tolstoy had it right — every unhappy family really is unhappy in its own way — the details of the Franco divorce are numbingly familiar.

So I'm not going to get into who's right. In almost any divorce, it's none of the above.

But I am troubled by the judge's interference in the children's religious training.

It's one thing to formalize what had long been accepted in the Franco home: The children were being raised as Catholics. It's another thing entirely to bar them from exposure to another point of view.

Typically, courts don't like wading into religion during custody cases. They know the First Amendment — and they clearly understand prohibiting a man from freely exercising his religion with his children is getting into dangerous territory.

Franco's appellate court lawyer, Phillip Escolar, cites a precedent from 1958 calling interference in custody matters involving religion a "perilous adventure upon which the judiciary should be loath to embark." That sounds just about right.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske