Unusual child support case goes before High Court
MONTPELIER ó The Vermont Supreme Court will decide whether a former Vermont woman can avoid paying child support because of her religious beliefs.
The Vermont Office of Child Support in 2003 received a court order allowing it to suspend the driver's license of Joyce Stanzione, a former Vermont resident who has not paid child support since she separated from her husband in 1991.
Stanzione is a long-time member of the Twelve Tribes Messianic Community in Florida and is not allowed under church law to have an income, said Jean Swantko, her attorney.
Suspending Stanzione's driver's license because she has no income violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects religious freedom, said Swantko, who is also a member of the Twelve Tribes Community.
Stanzione appealed the lower court decision. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday.
"She cannot pay because of her faith," Swantko wrote in a legal brief to the high court. "Suspending (her) right to drive is punishment for the free exercise of her religious beliefs."
Twelve Tribes has some 25 settlements worldwide, including Island Pond, which was the site of a raid by the state of Vermont in 1984. State officials alleged the community was abusing its children, but a judge dismissed all charges for a lack of evidence.
Stanzione now lives in another state, Swantko said, but suspending her Vermont right to drive would also bar her from driving in Florida because states honor each other's suspensions.
Losing her ability to drive would prevent Stanzione, 54, from doing church work, Swantko said.
"She drives every day for the work she does in the community," Swantko said. "She shops for the elderly and drives them around."
Stanzione was ordered in 1991 to pay $50 per week in child support when she and her husband divorced and he left the religious community to return to Vermont along with three of the couple's five children, according to court papers.
She never contested the order but made no payments, court papers said.
The youngest of her children turned 18 in 1999, but three years later Stanzione was brought back into court and ordered to pay $4,800 to the state to make up for the welfare payments Vermont taxpayers supplied her children while they lived with their father.
Stanzione again made no payments, and in 2003 the Office of Child Support successfully moved to have her driver's license suspended. The suspension, however, has been put on hold pending the Supreme Court appeal.
"It's a fairness issue," said Jeff Cohen, director of the Office of Child Support. "The taxpayers supported three kids for a long time. We are just asking for a reasonable amount of assistance."
Cohen said the state is not trampling on Stanzione's religious freedom by asking her to help support her own children.
"There are a lot of low-income people out there who make good efforts to support their kids," Cohen said. "There is an element of public policy behind this. It sends a message that people have to take responsibility for their kids."
The Office of Child Support suspends about 24 driver's licenses each year, he said.
A child-support order says Stanzione receives an annual "pro-rata share" of the church community's income. That came to about $5,000 in both 2000 and 2001.
Stanzione has income, which is why the state suspended her license, Cohen said.
"I don't think there is any question she has the ability to pay," Cohen said. "If she did not have the ability, we would write it off."
Swantko said Stanzione does not receive income from the church.
Members receive money "for tax purposes and to spend on food and shelter," Swantko said. "They don't get to spend it on themselves."
Swantko said it is unconstitutional for the state to punish Stanzione, a church community member since 1983, for not having a personal income when it is against her religious beliefs.
"You cannot suspend someone's license unless the person has the ability to pay," Swantko said. "The reason she does not have any money is because of her religious beliefs. They don't want to face that."
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