A family court judge told a father he was “unwise” to have taken his ultra-Orthodox Jewish children to a museum where images and exhibits depicted the theory of evolution.
Judge Judith Rowe made the remark in a judgment on a fraught custody dispute between a separated couple from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Satmar sect, which regards belief in evolution as heretical.
The May 2015 decision, which has only now been published, was the third of four in a drawn-out case that highlighted the difficulties faced by religious communities like the Satmar if they encounter modern influences.
Its members adhere to a strict 19th-century interpretation of Judaism and contact with the secular world can be taboo.
In her remarks Judge Rowe, sitting at West London Family Court, further criticised the man for telling his five-year-old son that “a mum and dad are needed to make babies”, because it was “beyond the knowledge” a child from the group would have been expected to possess by that age.
In an earlier judgment in 2014, she said the father had also been “unwise” to let his children watch televison as they would not have been used to it in their mother’s home.
The family’s identity has been protected for legal reasons.
The judge’s remarks were in the context of trying to balance the welfare and educational needs of children in a strict community and their gradual exposure to secular influences.
The mother compained that, following his exit from the Satmar community in 2013, her two children had been exposed to television and other outside influences by their father.
According to the second judgment, from November 2014, she did “not trust the father’s willingness and ability to support the children’s primary way of life”.
Judge Rowe stressed in that initial decision – which granted the “attuned, hands-on” father alternate weekend visits from his children including on the Sabbath, and set out school and holiday arrangements – that the children’s welfare was “paramount” and that she relied on prior guidance relating to people “for whom every aspect of their lives, every aspect of their being” is governed by religion.
She found the father understood that if he took things “too quickly or insensitively, then the children will find the transition difficult and confusing”.
But just weeks later the case was back in court over claims the man had exposed the children to images relating to the theory of evolution during a museum visit and spoken to his son about where babies come from.
The father, who remains an observant Jew, told the court: “I do not accept that showing them children’s story books or pictures on the wall, with pictures of monkeys with human faces or standing upright, is teaching evolution.”
However, Judge Rowe concluded that was “naive”. She said: “Given the Satmar approach to that theory, it seems to me to have been unwise of the father to take the children to a museum which exhibits pictures which appear – or may be taken – to depict extracts from that very theory.
“They are likely to prompt these bright young children to ask questions which, if answered honestly, would involve some explanation of that theory.”
Further complaints by the mother included that the father had combed one of his children’s curls on the Sabbath and allowed them to watch CBBC television. The judge criticised him for being “careless” and said he displayed “continuing difficulty in accepting some of the Satmar strictures as sufficiently important to require him to follow them when the children are with him”.
In the October ruling, the judge said: “My overall impression of the father was of a man far calmer and more at peace with himself than he was in the quite fraught proceedings of 2015.”
The judge also criticised the mother for failing to have any understanding of the father’s position. She said in her October judgment: “She said that she could arrange to visit the father’s community and I consider it would be immensely helpful for the children if that could be arranged. Surely some awareness by the mother of the father’s way of life would help to alleviate the suspicions and uncertainties that continue to motivate her.
“It seemed that she was looking for evidence to confirm her worst suspicions, and whilst the father has been dismissive when she has tried to raise things with him on occasion I did gain the clear impression that the mother has been making the very presumptions that I cautioned against in 2015.”
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish Charedi community is regarded as insular. Men wear 19th-century Eastern European dress including long black coats and black hats, while married women must dress modestly and cover their hair.
There are some 30,000 strictly Orthodox Jews living in the UK, of which Satmar is the largest sect. The community’s leaders in New York recently decreed that young women must not go to university in case they gain “dangerous” secular knowledge.
This family lived a Satmar ultra-Orthodox life until early 2013, when the father left in what was described as a “seismic event”. He continued to follow Judaism but for some time did not practise within a settled community, though he now does.
Judge Rowe said in 2015 that the man must “not say or do anything which risks marginalising the children within their community”.
But she added: “However hard the father works to honour this commitment, the children will inevitably see and hear things when they are with him that they would not and should not hear within Satmar.
“Whilst he must help them to make sense of such matters in a protective and supportive way, the mother must equally understand that this will happen.”