Having a mentor from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is supposed to be an educational, uplifting experience. Ohio native April Defibaugh certainly thought it would help her 11-year-old, developmentally disabled son. And everything was fine until her son’s mentor took him to get baptized at nobody’s request. The pastor held the boy underwater, to his surprise, leading him to have recurring nightmares.
In 2016, Defibaugh filed a police report calling for criminal charges against everyone involved.
“They held my son under water. It wasn’t like they sprinkled water on his head, it was like full immersion. He kicked, he screamed and told them beforehand that he was afraid. Every day since then he’s had nightmares, the same recurring dream, about being baptized over and over like he’s drowning,” says Defibaugh.
Now she wants assault and child endangering charges filed against the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, the pastor, the big brother and the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization itself.
The officer who filed the report told her it’s unlikely any of the criminal charges would stick since there was no physical harm. That said, it was appalling to think that these people could get away with forcing Christianity upon a child who wasn’t asking for it. It’s the result of a mindset that thinks you’re helping people by foisting your beliefs on them — something that would undoubtedly be controversial if any other religion were involved. (Can you imagine Todd Starnes‘ reaction if a Big Brother took a child of a Christian mother to a Satanic Black Mass ceremony?)
Unfortunately, those criminal charges went nowhere. So American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of April Defibaugh and her husband Gregg back in March of 2017. They went after the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Big Brother assigned to the son (David Guarnera), his church, the pastor (Matthew Chesnes), the court-appointed guardian ad litem who proselytized to the family and assigned Guarnera to their son (Margaret Vaughan), and her organization CASA.
The lawsuit alleges that [child] V’s court-appointed guardian ad litem, Margaret Vaughan, repeatedly proselytized to V’s parents, April and Gregg DeFibaugh, and their children and told them that “families need God to raise children.” Despite complaining multiple times to Vaughan’s supervisors, no corrective action was taken by the agency. In 2015, Vaughan recruited David Guarnera, a member of her church, to act as a mentor for V through the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio (BBBS).
According to the suit, despite explicit instructions from the DeFibaughs to refrain from religious activities with V, Guarnero would frequently discuss religion with V. On August 28, 2016, Guarnero took V to a picnic at his church, the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, and, along with the church pastor, Matthew Chesnes, forcibly baptized V, pushing him under water. Since the incident, V has suffered anxiety and extreme emotional distress.
“We are horrified by Pastor Chesnes’ and Mr. Guanera’s actions,” said Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ national legal director. “The people that the DeFibaughs relied on to protect their child violated their trust and their constitutional rights.”
The judge found CASA is entitled to absolute immunity from their claims since their actions in appointing and not removing the guardian were done in an official capacity. The guardian was excused from the suit since the couple failed to demonstrate her alleged misconduct took place outside her role as a guardian, which had limited powers.
The judge also agreed with Big Brothers Big Sisters’ argument that they should be dismissed because the boy’s Big Brother was merely a volunteer working for a private nonprofit group.
Gaughan said the plaintiffs failed to show the defendants had a single plan to violate their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and separation of church and state…
In other words, there was no ruling on the merits of the case. The judge said that Vaughn, in her capacity as a guardian ad litem, wasn’t a government actor, so the main federal charge against her could be tossed out. Because of that, the judge didn’t bother ruling on the other state-level claims.
“Ms. Vaughan’s, Pastor Chesnes’, and Mr. Guanera’s actions are appalling,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, American Atheists’ staff attorney. “We are pleased that the DeFibaugh family will finally have their day in court.”
American Atheists has retained attorney Kenneth D. Myers of Cleveland to serve as local counsel.
Myers said, “The DeFibaughs put their trust Mr. Guarnera and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They betrayed that trust. No one has the right to lay a finger on a child without parental consent, let alone forcibly submerge a child in water.”
Here’s hoping they’re successful. The alternative would be that Christianity was foisted upon this child with no legal recourse for his family.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)