Painesville, OH—American Atheists today filed a lawsuit in the Common Pleas Court of Lake County, Ohio, alleging that a developmentally disabled child was forcibly baptized against the expressed wishes of his parents by a minister and a court-approved “Big Brother” mentor.
The child, referred to as “V” in the court filing, was taken to a church picnic in August 2016 by the child’s mentor. During the picnic, the mentor and the church’s pastor subjected V to a full-immersion baptism, against the wishes of V’s parents. The forced baptism was the culmination of more than a year of religious harassment by V’s guardian ad litem and V’s mentor.
The lawsuit alleges that V’s court-appointed guardian ad litem, Margaret Vaughan, recruited David Guarnera, a member of her church, to act as a mentor for V through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio (BBBS). According to the suit, despite explicit instructions from the DeFibaughs to refrain from religious activities with V, Guarnera would frequently discuss religion with V. On August 28, 2016, Guarnera 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.
The DeFibaughs reported the incident to the local police and to BBBS before seeking legal assistance. The lawsuit was initially filed on March 28, 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio but was dismissed when the federal court concluded that Vaughan was not acting as an agent of the government when she repeatedly proselytized to the DeFibaugh family and arranged for Guarnera to mentor V. The court did not rule on the claims brought by the DeFibaugh family under state law, thus permitting those claims to be re-filed in state court.
“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.”
The family is seeking declaratory judgment that the conduct of the named defendants was a violation of their rights under the law, compensatory and punitive damages, and counsel fees and costs.