Divorce and custody arrangements are hard enough for any family, but it gets even more complicated when the court orders extra measures to allow a parent aid or custody over their children.
One Albuquerque mother was ordered by the court to attend therapy counseling sessions or be guilty of contempt of court charges. The problem? The court was demanding a non-religious woman go to an extremely religious counselor or else she would lose custody of her sons.
In order to be granted aid for taking care of her 11 year old sons, the judge ordered that Holly Salzman attend 10 sessions with counselor Mary Pepper. Pepper is not just a generic counselor though, as she incorporates her faith in every session.
"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," Salzman said.
The separation of Church and State is a commonly known fact within the United States Government. Salzman felt that the court-ordered session for her to attend counseling sessions went against her own religious beliefs, but was met with no response when she contacted the Family Court with her concerns after the first session.
Salzman even addressed the court about her concerns about the counseling sessions, which were dismissed when the court pointed out that there were no previous concerns involving the counselor. After the court's disregard, she was so upset with them that she stopped attending the courses, which led to her temporarily losing her sons until she completed the 10 sessions.
"You don't have a choice," She said. "You do it or you're held in contempt of court."
ACLU executive director Peter Simonson agreed with Salzman's opposition to the idea that people might be forced into mandated activities such as therapy when it violates the person's own personal beliefs.
"We've got protections in our country under the Bill of Rights that are intended to try and stop that," Simonson said.
Salzman teamed up with KRQE Channel 13 to secretly record the final three sessions. The observations revealed that Pepper regularly incorporated ever session with religion, going as far to giving Salzman a homework assignment to write an essay about her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God. The recorded sessions also showed Pepper directly telling her to consider how God was in her life, even if she doesn't believe in him.
Other than the imposed religious aspect of Pepper's sessions, the counselor is also illegally charging clients for the sessions. When questioned about these concerns, Pepper ended her interview with Channel 13, citing how the details about her business are not appropriate to be broadcasted.
Salzman begrudgingly finished the rest of her sessions and got custody of her sons.