Scott Pilutik

I am an attorney and consultant living and working in Manhattan, focusing primarily on church/state constitutional law. I'm a recognized expert on the Church of Scientology organization. I also have strong interests in intellectual property law where it intersects with emerging media, and free speech.

I support the efforts of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, Creative Commons, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I am a member of the New York County Lawyers Association and the New York State Bar Association. I also enjoy (watching) hockey and (doing) photograhy.

Online I can be found on Facebook, Twitter. My resume can be viewed here. I can be reached by phone at 212.645.6241 or by e-mail at pilutik[at]gmail.com.

In defense of Thomas Mills and the judge who granted his wish that his children not be homeschooled

Some Christians are up in arms over a North Carolina family court’s order last week that mother Venessa Mills discontinue homeschooling her children and send them to public school instead. After reading the news coverage, and then reading the order [pdf], I think the court got it right, and for the right reasons, few of which directly relate to homeschooling. If anything, this was an anti-cult decision, not an anti-homeschooling decision.

Yet, the vast majority of articles and opinion pieces are keyed only to the fear and outrage that this decision somehow spells apocalyptic doom for homeschooling.

Take T. Keung Hui of the Raleigh News & Observer, whose allegedly straight news report on the decision begins:

Home-school groups and conservatives across the country are infuriated by a Wake County judge’s declaration that he will make a North Raleigh mother stop teaching her children at home and send them to public schools.

L.A. Williams of the
Christian Action League, similarly leads with:

Home Education Week in North Carolina kicks off Sunday (March 22) amid a firestorm of controversy surrounding a Wake County divorce ruling that will send three home schooled children into public school against their mother’s wishes.

Keung doesn’t even alert readers to the fact that the children have a father, Thomas Mills, until the 14th paragraph of the article (L.A. Williams, from whom an expectation of bias seems more natural, also first mentions the father in the 14th paragraph), despite that the father and mother requested that the court to settle their dispute as to how the children shall be educated. Yet these articles, and many others, frame this story as one where a court is arbitrarily imposing its will to destroy homeschooling, as opposed to what it is–a disagreement between parties who have to equally share decision-making power as to how the children are raised. Why should the father’s wish that the children not be homeschooled not be taken into account–or at least mentioned in one of the first few paragraphs?

If the facts led the court to conclude that homeschooling was in the best interests of the children, which it may have decided had the facts led it to such a conclusion, this story wouldn’t have made a ripple in the media pool. But the story has gained national interest, the attention mostly coming from homeschooling activists who see this decision as a threat to their way of life. In its rush to condemn the decision, however, it appears that they either have failed to grasp it, or are deliberately and disingenuously ignoring key facts.

The first ignored fact, as mentioned, is that the court was called upon by both parties to resolve a stalemate–it did not swoop down like Janet Reno on an unsuspecting Elián González and pry the children from their mother’s arms kicking and screaming to public school. The parents genuinely disputed how to best educate the children, and the court addressed the matter just as every other court in the country would have–by determining the best interests of the children, which is not necessarily the same thing as the best education for the children, although it would most often work out to be the same.

This takes me to the next ignored fact–the mother has chosen to immerse herself in a cult which, as cults almost always do, urges member to actively disconnect from their non-believer friends and families. And the children’s mother has done just that. According to Thomas, “Venessa Mills became unrecognizable as the person I had married. She withdrew emotionally from me.”

Her longtime friend–they were each other’s maids of honor–Shanna Winker-Hanson, testified that “In the last four years, since her joining the Sound Doctrine church, Venessa has pushed her loved ones away. She has become more and more distant with me.”

Venessa’s mother, father and sister even testified against their own blood relative, expressing their concern as to “Venessa’s involvement with Sound Doctrine and are particularly concerned about the affect [sic] on the children.” This obviously played a large part in the judge’s decision, yet is hardly touched upon by Venessa Mills’ many defenders.

The church to which Venessa belongs is run by Tim and Carla Williams and is located in the state of Washington–quite a ways from North Carolina. Tim and Carla have engendered no shortage of vocal detractors amongst ex-members, many of whom testified on behalf of the father. Ex-members characterized Sound Doctrine as “cult-like and manipulative” in affidavits, and claimed that it teaches members to “break” their children to establish authority, and subjects them to harsh work regimens. Perhaps most troubling were affiants who testified that Tim Williams would often speak about pre-teen children in a sexual manner; Tina Wasik testified that:

Tim Williams told me that my oldest daughter (then age 12) was the kind of girl men would take advantage of, that my middle daughter (then age 7) was the kind of girl that would sleep with any guy, and that my youngest daughter (age 4) was the kind of girl that would use her looks to seduce men.” Tina Wasick added “Timothy once told us that our daughter [..] was the type of girl who would probably end up trying to seduce a pastor.
She was 7 years old at the time!!”

Perhaps because those reporting this story have pitched it in such an unfair manner, there’s no shortage of internet outrage to go around–in fact, I’ve yet to find someone defending the decision. Here’s a sampling of the fact-free delusions I’ve come across:

This ruling is the top of a very slippery slope. If a judge can order homeschooled children into public schools for no reason besides his own “feelings,” all homeschoolers are threatened.

That’s Patrice Lewis from WorldNetDaily implying that the judge acted unilaterally, ignoring that both parties requested the court’s assistance.

Alan Keyes was also informed of the decision and, as ever, didn’t disappoint, reaching deep into his wellspring of unhinged rhetoric to warn that this “imposition of socialist tyranny will produce the enslavement of conscience,” and later analogized the decision and fate of Venessa Mills to the tyranny imposed by “American slaveholders in the nineteenth century,” who tore children away from their mothers “to be sold into slavery in some distant state.” I posted a comment on Keyes’ blog but doubt it’ll be approved–I simply asked whether anyone commenting there gave any consideration to the fact that the father also had rights. I’ll update as to how that goes. [update: comment accepted, no response yet though]

And actual politicians–as opposed to pretend ones like Keyes–also got in on the action: “I agree, this was a terrible decision. Hopefully an appeal will reverse the decision,” scolded Neal Hunt, Deputy Republican Leader of the North Carolina Senate.

Finally, two websites, both in rabid defense of Venessa Mills, have cropped up, one, HS Injustice, run by Robyn Williams, who describes herself as a friend of mother Venessa Mills, and another, Home School Liberty, appears to be the work of John Peterson, who appears to be a tireless organizer.

These sources all fail to even confront the question of the father’s rights–it’s as if the fact doesn’t exist, and Thomas Mills has no right in the world to disagree with Venessa as to how the children are schooled.

So why didn’t Thomas want the children homeschooled? Apparently he agreed in 2005 to temporarily allow Venessa to homeschool the children “during their early years,” but wished for them to return to public school later on. Thomas, and the court, agree that the Venessa is competently homeschooling the children. But the quality of the homeschooling is not at issue–the best interests of the children are issue, and the fact that the line between home schooling and Sound Doctrine is often blurred. Paragraph 39 of the order:

The Court finds as fact that part of the daily activity of the minor children includes the immersion into Sound Doctrine, through frequent communication via phone and web cam with people in Washington State. Thomas Mills expressed concern for this. He stated that he was unaware of Sound Doctrine instruction from a member in Washington State when it occurred during a time devoted to school curriculum. He stated in part that “I am concerned about this because they are directly targeting my daughter.” The Court finds this as fact.

In paragraph 42 the court points out, incredulously, that “even though Mr. Mills has a good job, no criminal record, no history of substance abuse or domestic violence, Ms. Mills has asked this Court to enter several orders, including:

  • “Limiting Mr. Mills from having any overnight visits with his children;
  • “Limiting Mr. Mills from seeing his children to a total of 9 hours a week;
  • “Removing all decision making authority away from Mr. Mills related to education and religion;
  • “To not allow Mr. Mills any regular visitation on Sundays;
  • “To order that Mr. Mills not allow the children to have contact with any ex-Sound Doctrine members or anyone hostile to the organization.”

I believe the court found this list of requests telling as to Venessa Mills’ state of mind, not only because they’re so severed from reality–Tom Mills would have to be a monster to be awarded limited custody sought by Venessa–but also because each request reveals the mother’s desire to limit the children’s exposure to any external influence, and especially the father’s influence. It’s as if she’s asking for court ordered disconnection, which is a hallmark characteristic of cults–concerned family members often question and disrupt the flow a member’s money to the cult/beneficiary. One Sound Doctrine ex-member testified in an affidavit that “we were often harrassed [sic] to give money” and another that Sound Doctrine “really drives a wedge between members and their families.”

The court rightly spotted that wedge in time, and ensured that Thomas Mills would have a hand in deciding how his children will be educated. Venessa Mills decidedly wants to immerse the children in Sound Doctrine to the exclusion of any competing thoughts and externalities, which Thomas actively sought to expand. Forced to choose between two potential futures for the children, the court opted for the future that would guarantee exposure to a wider variety of thought, while it simultaneously avoided the danger of the children’s education becoming indistinguishable from Sound Indoctrination.

UPDATE: I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one to perceive this case rationally. I earlier missed that Timothy Sandefur and Little Green Footballs (of all places) both get it right also..