Eleven-Year-Old With Disability Forcibly Baptized, Lawsuit Says
CLEVELAND — The mentor of an 11-year-old boy with a disability told the boy’s parents he was taking him to a church picnic when he picked him up last August 28.
But the Big Brother volunteer had other plans that day which have haunted the boy with nightmares, and infuriated the boy’s parents, April and Gregg DeFibaugh of Hambden Township, according to a lawsuit the couple filed this week in U.S. District Court.
Pastor Matt Chesnes of the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon was presiding over a group baptism that Friday. And unknown to the parents, their son was going to participate in the ceremony.
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Together, Pastor Matt and the Big Brother, David Guarnera, 54, of Chardon, conducted the baptism, plunging his head underwater for the total immersion rite, the lawsuit said.
The men “held his head under water to the point where (he) felt like he was choking and could not breathe,” according to the lawsuit.
Chesnes did not return a call seeking comment this week. Guarnera said he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined to talk about it.
“That’s interesting,” he said after being told of the lawsuit. “I can’t give you any information.”
After the picnic, Guarnera drove the boy home, where he informed the parents of what had just taken place. They were “shocked and angered,” and immediately reported the incident to the Geauga County Sheriff’s Department, the lawsuit said.
The officer declined to press charges against Guarnera or Chesnes, however, explaining that the boy had not suffered any physical injuries and there was no criminal intent to harm their son, the parents said.
In their lawsuit, the DeFibaughs raise religious issues and questions of First Amendment violations. They accuse Guarnera and the boy’s court-appointed guardian, Margaret Vaughan, 53, of Chardon, of forcing their evangelical beliefs on the boy and defying their orders against subjecting their son to religious proselytizing.
“The plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer loss of their constitutional rights to choose and practice the religion of their choice, and the right to provide or not provide religious education to their child as they see fit without the interference and indoctrination” of the defendants, the lawsuit said.
The couple is represented by Cleveland lawyer Kenneth Myers, as well as Geoffrey Blackwell, an attorney at the American Atheists Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
The DeFibaughs are non-religious, but don’t identify themselves as Atheists, said Nick Fish, national program director for the American Atheists group. The parents deferred comment to Fish.
“Parents have a right to raise their children as they wish,” Fish said. “The point is this child underwent a baptism against their wishes. Can you imagine the outrage if a Christian child was forcibly taken to a Black Mass or a Muslim ceremony?”
The lawsuit explains how the story evolved:
Initially, Vaughan was appointed as a guardian for the 11-year-old boy’s 14-year-old sister, who was exhibiting behavioral problems in 2016, according to the lawsuit. During the ensuing court proceedings, it became apparent that the boy was socially awkward and also could benefit from Vaughan’s guardianship.
Vaughan, who also was a member of the Morning Star Friends Church, used her time with the DeFibaughs to preach about Jesus, and gave them religious books, tapes and CDs, the lawsuit said.
The DeFibaughs felt intimidated by Vaughan and complained to her supervisors at CASA For Kids of Geauga County, but the officials declined to remove Vaughan as their children’s guardian.
Vaughan later recruited Guarnera to serve as a Big Brother for the boy, according to the lawsuit.
Guarnera agreed not to proselytize, and took the boy to Lake County Captains minor league baseball games in Eastlake. He also took him to the Morning Star Friends Church for picnics and social events, the lawsuit said.
But contrary to the parents’ orders, Guarnera often talked about religion with the boy, played religious songs on the car radio, and told him he didn’t like families that did not believe in God. The boy said he felt intimidated and feared Guarnera would abandon him if he didn’t go along with the religious bond, the lawsuit said.
On the day of the baptism, the boy said Guarnera threatened not to take him to any more baseball games if he declined to participate in the ceremony. He said Guarnera pushed him forward when the pastor called for the baptism participants to stand, according to the lawsuit.
The boy said he was confused because he didn’t understand what the ceremony entailed. Chesnes and Guarnera then forced the boy’s head underwater, the lawsuit said.
Since then, the boy has suffered severe emotional distress and anxiety, confusion and anger, according to the lawsuit.
The couple accuses the defendants of violating their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, as well as separation of church and state.
Named defendants in the lawsuit are Guarnera, Chesnes, Vaughan, Morning Star Friends Church, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio and CASA For Kids of Geauga County.
© 2017 The Plain Dealer
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