A lawsuit involving the forced baptism of a special needs child has finally been settled. It took several years to get to this point, but it’s the outcome the family wanted.
Here’s the backstory: Normally, 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 then-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 was unlikely any of the criminal charges would stick since there was no physical harm. Still, it was appalling to think that these people could get away with forcing Christianity upon a child who wasn’t asking for it with parents who also weren’t 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.
Indeed, those criminal charges went nowhere.
So, in March of 2017, American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of April Defibaugh and her husband Gregg. 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 lawsuit asked for all the bad actions to be declared unconstitutional and for an appropriate amount of compensatory and punitive damages in addition to legal costs and attorneys’ fees.
That October, unfortunately, U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Gaughan dismissed the case, saying that Vaughn, as a guardian ad litem, wasn’t a government actor, so the main federal charge against her could be tossed out. Ditto for the boy’s Big Brother, who was merely a volunteer. The judge also said the family didn’t show that the defendants “had a single plan to violate their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and separation of church and state”… meaning even if boundaries were crossed, they didn’t show it was done intentionally.
Bottom line: The suit was tossed out.
So in April of 2018, American Atheists sued again, this time in a state court, arguing that the people involved were violating Ohio law. (The federal claim against Vaughn was not part of this lawsuit.)
That lawsuit has now, finally, been settled. While the terms of the settlement are not disclosed, American Atheists says the family is “pleased” with the outcome:
“Although no settlement or verdict could undo the anguish their son suffered, the DeFibaughs are pleased with the outcome,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, American Atheists’ Litigation Counsel. “They are glad that he will not have to go through the ordeal of a trial.”
“We applaud the defendants’ decision to settle this case and allow the family to move forward,” said Cleveland-based attorney Kenneth D. Myers, who collaborated with American Atheists in representing the DeFibaughs. “Everyone, whether a pastor or a volunteer mentor, must respect the family’s values.”
“Unfortunately, nonreligious families like the DeFibaughs too often face discrimination and disapproval because of the choices they make in raising their children,” said American Atheists’ President Nick Fish.
If nothing else, I hope the family gets some closure from this. No one should have to deal with the forced Christian conversion of their child, even symbolically. I suspect this would be a far bigger story if we weren’t talking about Christianity.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)