Faith-based lessons forced on mum
‘Inappropriate’ methods used by a Christian ‘educator’ in Albuquerque – Mary Pepper, above right – were brought to light last week by Holly Salzman, left, who was ordered by a court to attend Pepper’s faith-based classes.
The disturbing order was issued after Salzman asked the Family Court Division for help in co-parenting her 11-year-old twin boys with her ex-husband. Instead she got 10 court-ordered religious sessions that she did not want.
The court told Salzman, who hoped to get co-parenting as well as communication skills, that she had to see Pepper, who touts herself as an educator, a mentor and a teacher for couples.
You don’t have a choice. You do it or you’re held in contempt of court.
In an interview with KRQE News 13 Salzman says she was surprised by her first encounter with Pepper.
I walked into the session and the very first thing she said to me was, ‘I start my sessions by praying’. 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 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.
To get her kids back she had to finish the classes, and 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. Pepper told Salzman at one of the meetings:
The meaning in my life is to know love and serve God …
There were also 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.
Pepper responded by saying:
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.
She said she doesn’t believe her programme has religious overtones and claimed that it was Salzman who brought up the subject of religion. 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 programme.
The court does not pay for the sessions nor does it run them but because they’re court ordered, the American Civil Liberties Union said there may be a problem. Said Peter Simonson, ACLU Executive Director:
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.
Simonson said he wanted to know how much the court knew about Pepper’s religious offerings in her programme. KRQE News 13 wanted to know too, but court spokesperson Tim Korte said court employees could not comment on pending cases.
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 ten court-ordered clients a week. But she said most people have no interest in spirituality and she said she leaves it out of the programme.
There are more red flags. Pepper holds her meetings inside public libraries “to keep her costs down”. 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 discrete about it because she’s 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.
Pepper wouldn’t tell KRQE News 13 about the cash payments.
I think that this interview needs to be ended. 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. She said:
I got a certificate and I kicked my heels on the way out.