Court-ordered religious classes raise concerns

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) -- Holly Salzman was hoping to get some help co-parenting her 11-year-old twin boys with her ex-husband. Instead she says she got 10 court-ordered religious sessions that she did not want.

"It's very inappropriate," Salzman said.

District Court ordered 10 classes through it's Family Court Division. Family Court provides services in child custody cases to reduce conflict.

"To help us with our co-parenting as well as communication skills," she said.

At the end of last year Salzman started attending the sessions.

"You don't have a choice. You do it or you're held in contempt of court," Salzman said.

The court told Salzman she had to see Mary Pepper. She touts herself as an educator, a mentor and a teacher for couples. But Salzman says she was surprised by what else Pepper offered.

"I walked into the session and the very first thing she said to me was, 'I start my sessions by praying,'" Salzman said. "When I expressed my concerns that I didn't pray she said, 'well this is what I do' and she proceeded to say a prayer out loud."

Salzman wondered how this did not cross the line between church and state. After that first meeting with Pepper, she says she left a message with Family Court staff, complaining about the religion. Salzman says she never heard back. She says the second session with Pepper opened with a prayer again.

"We went back to court. I expressed concerns again about the religious overtones and they stated they hadn't heard any problems concerning Mary Pepper with religion," Salzman said.

The single mother of two said she felt so "offended and disgusted" that she stopped going to the court-ordered sessions. The result was that the court took her kids away.

"It's probably the worst thing I've ever been through in my life," Salzman said.

To get her kids back she had to finish the classes.

Salzman said the religious pressure continued.

KRQE News 13 rolled undercover video and audio in the final three classes between Salzman and Pepper. There were several references of religion.

"The meaning in my life is to know love and serve God," Pepper told Salzman in one of the meetings. "If you want to explore how God was in your past, how God was in your life and not in your life...  I know you don't believe in God which is fine but I know at some points he was in your life in some way."

There were handouts with quotes of Psalms and other religious quotes. Pepper also gave her homework titled "who is God to me?"

"Every session there was some sort of religion that was intertwined with the sessions," Salzman said.

"I'm a believer myself and if a person is open, we talk about God. If they're not open, it's a secular program that I provide," Pepper said after KRQE News 13 caught up to her after a session.

Pepper said she doesn't believe her program has religious overtones. She said Salzman was interested in religion early in their meetings and that's why she brought it up.

"There was interested in analyzing her belief system. She asked me specifically... how do I understand spirituality, meaning and purpose and life," Pepper said.

As for allegations of blurring the lines between church and state, Pepper said it shouldn't matter that she mentions religion in a court-ordered program.

"I'm a private business that people decide to come through or not. The particular person there was interested in analyzing her belief system.," she said.

The court does not pay for the sessions or run them but because they're court ordered, the American Civil Liberties Union said there may be a problem.

"No one should be put in a position where they are forced to accept training or therapy that violates their own religious beliefs and morals," said  Peter Simonson, ACLU Executive Director.

The ACLU doesn't know all the facts of this case but believes if the courts are funneling clients to religious-based counseling, it could violate the separation of church and state.

"We've got protections in our country under the Bill of Rights are intended to try and stop that," Simonson said. "On the face of it, it looks pretty problematic."

Simonson said he wanted to know how much the court knew about Pepper's religious offerings in her program. KRQE News 13 wanted to know too, but court spokesperson Tim Korte said court employees could not comment on pending cases.

Korte said, "the court does not refer parties to religious-based counseling. Some of the counseling organizations where individuals are referred may offer optional religious counseling, but the individual is not ordered by the court to participate in the religious counseling."

Pepper said 50-percent of her clients are referred from the court. She said has about 10 court-ordered clients a week. But Pepper said most people have no interest in spirituality and she said she leaves it out of the program.

But there are more red flags. Pepper holds her meetings inside public libraries.

"That way I can keep my costs down," Pepper said.

But she's not allowed to work in public libraries. City policy forbids the sale of products or services on library property.

Salzman says Pepper is aware of that-- claiming she has her clients book the rooms in their names and pay her in cash.

"She had actually explained to me that you need to be discreet about it because I'm not allowed to exchange money in the public library. So I had to kind of hide the money and then literally pass the money under the table," Salzman said.

Pepper wouldn't tell KRQE News 13 about the cash payments.

"I think that this interview needs to be ended," she said. "If you'd like to know more in private, I'd explain a lot about my business but to do this on the air is not appropriate."

But Pepper never explained the payments off-camera.

Salzman got her kids back and finished her co-parenting classes.

"I got a certificate and I kicked my heels on the way out," Salzman said.


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