An attorney for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the church was forced to make a choice between the wishes of two feuding parents, one in the United States and one in Japan, regarding the ordination of their two sons into the LDS priesthood.
During oral arguments before the Utah Court of Appeals Tuesday, a father claims the LDS Church ordained his two sons against his wishes and should be held legally liable.
"The church respects the right of family and rule of parents in making these kind of decisions," said LDS attorney Matthew Richards. "There was no middle ground, and the church had to decide whether to allow the ordinances or not to. And it's really not a surprise that with these Japanese clergy, with respect to a Japanese woman, allowed her request to allow these ordinances to proceed."
Michael Gulbraa, the legal custodial parent of the boys, said the LDS Church ignored his wishes not to ordain his sons, at the time 11 and 12, in Japan while he and his ex-wife continued an international custody battle.
Gulbraa sued the church, claiming it inflicted emotional distress upon him and his sons, and violated his right as custodial parent to make decisions regarding his children's religious beliefs. A 3rd District Judge dismissed the suit, ruling the government shouldn't interfere with religious activity.
"The sole custodian, both physical and legal, has the parental right to determine the religious upbringing of their children," said Gulbraa's attorney Kevin Bond.
Gulbraa claims church officials instructed other church members not to give him information about his children. For several years now, Gulbraa has been locked in an international custody battle with his ex-wife, who now lives in Japan.
Bond said shortly after the couple's divorce, a state judge in Provo initially granted custody of the children to the mother, with visitation to Gulbraa. Despite warnings to not leave the country, the mother took the children with her to Japan. Eventually, federal officials filed international child-kidnapping charges against the mother and her new husband.
Recently, one of Gulbraa's sons made his way to the United States. He is now 16.
"The mother is under federal indictment (and) is a fugitive from justice," Bond told the appellate judges.
But appellate judges questioned if the mother should be the focus and not the church, since it appeared it was the mother's decision to ordain the sons.
Bond responded that the church was given notice of Gulbraa's custody rights and still went forward. He also pointed out that one of the sons who made it back to the United States claims he did not agree to the ordination.
Richards argued that Gulbraa's claim of emotional distress should be dismissed because he has failed to show any "outrageous behavior" on the part of the church.
"You don't think concealing the well-being of children who are allegedly kidnapped doesn't rise to the level of outrageous?" one appellate judge commented.
"The church did not kidnap these children. It was the mother who kidnapped these children," Richards said. "It's the mother who is holding them in Japan and the church is a third party."
Judges pointed out that Gulbraa has alleged the church instructed members to conceal information about his children.
Richards said the church has a right to minister to its members the way it sees fit including how it shares information about its members.The court is expected to issue a written ruling in the coming months.