Judge right in conversion case

By Jonathan Goldberg, August 9, 2012
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The case of the Jewish girl, "C", who wants to be baptised against her mother's will, has achieved great publicity this week, with criticism directed at the judge who ruled on it.

Judge Platt's decision is fact specific and creates no binding precedent whatsoever.

The decision was in May, and it does not appear that the mother has appealed, so it is likely that the baptism will proceed. It seems to me, in fairness to the judge, that he struggled with this hottest of potatoes with very considerable care and sensitivity. The Children Act of 1989 demanded of him that his paramount consideration in deciding the case must be what was best for the welfare of the child herself.

The facts here as recited fully in his judgment, were singular. The marriage had lasted 14 years. Neither set of grandparents, and neither parent, had exposed either of the children (a girl of 10 and a boy of five) to any kind of Jewish upbringing, either before or after the divorce. The father had converted to Anglicanism, for whatever reason, and now lived his life as a committed Christian. With the mother's consent - and this is a vital feature - he had for a long time been taking both children to church on Sundays. Thus they had been brought up with no leanings towards Judaism, but merely according to general principles of moral behaviour, which the judge noted were "indistinguishable between the two religions".

They had no Jewish upbringing whatsoever

C is clever and articulate, considered to be a year in advance of her biological age. She announced to her mother one day her desire to be baptised. Acting in what the judge found to be an over-hasty manner, and without first calmly consulting the girl, the father, or the church minister, the mother rushed to court and obtained an interim order prohibiting baptism, based as was later held, on considerable misstatement of the facts. It was this that the judge overturned, after hearing evidence and reading an independent report by Cafcass (the government-based family support service). The girl had restated to Cafcass in strong and evidently sincere terms her desire to be baptised.

Nor were matters helped, in the judge's eyes, by the fact that the mother's lawyers had presented no adequate expert evidence of Jewish attitudes and traditions, but had merely produced a letter from Rabbi Odom Brandman, "written in highly emotive terms".

It was in this context that the judge noted that, according to Jewish law, the girl was and always would be Jewish. Thus baptism was not an irrevocable step that would necessarily prevent her returning to her Jewish roots. He did, however, make an order preventing her from taking the further step towards Christianity of a confirmation ceremony, unless and until she turned 16.

We live in a Christian country, and we must not forget that "the law of the state is also the law of the Jew". This was not a medieval case of forced conversion of a Jewess. It was rather assimilation and lack of Jewish education of a child. And even more predictably, perhaps, the result of one parent adopting an identifiable religion where the other parent (and grandparents) did nothing.

Thus I cannot entirely endorse the anger over this decision. But there is a cynical question-mark in my mind, I will confess, as to whether it would necessarily have gone the same way if the new religion had been, say, Islam or Mormonism, let alone Scientology.

Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.GoldbergQC.com

Last updated: 5:45pm, August 9 2012