Court sides with church on its ban of autistic teen
The ruling, citing "repeated harassment," also adds new fuel to the debate over what role special needs kids should have in society.
By R ICHARD MERYHEW and C URT BROWN
An autistic 13-year-old boy from central Minnesota won't be going back to his family's church anytime soon.
Upholding a May 13 restraining order that barred the teen from the church, Todd County District Judge Sally Ireland Robertson has ruled that 6-foot-2, 225-pound Adam Race engaged in "repeated harassment" and was perceived as a threat by those attending services at the Church of St. Joseph in the town of Bertha.
Robertson said that even though Adam "did not specifically intend to harass anyone," his conduct at church services was "objectively unreasonable" and included "repeated, disruptive or distracting acts, sounds, and gestures."
Robertson's ruling, issued Friday, shocked Adam's mother and reignited concerns among some advocates about how churches, and society as a whole, deal with the needs and issues of autistic children.
"Is this the kind of road and precedents we want to set our kids on with special needs in the future?" said Brad Trahan, founder of the RT Autism Foundation in Rochester and the father of an 8-year-old autistic boy.
"I totally understand that the church environment in this case has to be safe.
"But the bottom line is one out of 150 births includes an autistic child and as a society we have to deal with it. We have to be able to go out to church and restaurants and events as one family.
"There are no winners in this situation. The church doesn't win. The family doesn't win, and Adam doesn't win."
Adam's mother, Carol Race, said Tuesday that she was surprised that the judge found so much of Adam's behavior to be harassing.
Race, who represented herself at a hearing last week to challenge the restraining order, said she is going to consult with an attorney "to see what my legal recourse is" while continuing in mediation with church leaders.
While some of Adam's behavior can be alarming, Race said, it can all be explained by his autism.
"The judge took every little thing," Race said, "like the noises he makes. That's silly. And asking him not to make noise is like asking someone else not to breathe. That's just who he is."
In an affidavit, the pastor, the Rev. Daniel Walz, said, among other things, that Adam struck a child during mass, nearly bowled over elderly people while bolting from the church, and spat and urinated there, too. Calls to Walz for comment have not been returned.
Race said she called "witness after witness" to the stand last week to testify that Adam's autism never interrupted Walz or the church service.
Jane Marrin, director of pastoral planning for the St. Cloud Diocese, speaking on behalf of the parish, said Race and the parish have met once in mediation in hopes of resolving the dispute. She said it is the parish's hope that the effort will continue.
In a memorandum explaining her decision, Robertson pointed to part of state law that defines harassment as: "repeated incidents of intrusive or unwanted acts, words, or gestures that have a substantial adverse effect ... on the safety, security, or privacy of another."
Robertson said the evidence presented showed that Adam's acts, words or gestures, though unintentional, were intrusive or unwanted and repeated each Sunday.
Race said she and her family have attended the church since 1996. A week after the restraining order was issued, she took Adam to church and was later cited for violating the court order.
Since then, she has taken Adam to a church in nearby Browerville.
Issue of acceptance
Shelly Christensen, who works with Minnesota synagogues and is author of the "Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People With Disabilities," said the debate over Adam "indicates to me that there's a huge problem in terms of the faith communities and acceptance of people with disabilities."
She said she's disappointed the dispute couldn't be resolved outside court.
"Every behavior has a purpose, and someone who doesn't have the verbal means to communicate uses those behaviors," she said.
The Rev. Linda Koelman of North United Methodist Church in Minneapolis said some of her church members have been trained to work with 13-year-old autistic twins while their mother sang in the choir. Koelman said they learned what triggered certain behaviors and took turns sitting with the boys and taking them out of church when necessary.
"Hopefully churches will begin to get the training and develop the support systems they need because, if you're going to be a welcoming church, you can't kick people out and get restraining orders," Koelman said.