Kingston v. Kingston

Citation2022 UT 43
Decision Date22 December 2022
Docket Number20200350
PartiesRyan Clyde Kingston, Appellant, v. Jessica Benny Kingston, Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

2022 UT 43

Ryan Clyde Kingston, Appellant,
v.
Jessica Benny Kingston, Appellee.

No. 20200350

Supreme Court of Utah

December 22, 2022


On Appeal of Final Decree of Divorce Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Andrew H. Stone No. 144904226

Steve S. Christensen, Clinton R. Brimhall, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Benjamin K. Lusty, Lisa Watts Baskin, Jaryl L. Rencher, Salt Lake City, for appellee

CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT authored the opinion of the Court, in which JUDGE MORTENSEN and JUDGE TENNEY joined.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE filed a dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE PETERSEN joined.

Having recused himself, JUSTICE LEE did not participate herein; COURT OF APPEALS JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY sat.

Due to his retirement, JUSTICE HlMONAS did not participate herein; COURT OF APPEALS JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN sat.

JUSTICE HAGEN and JUSTICE POHLMAN became members of the Court after oral argument in this matter and accordingly did not participate.

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OPINION

DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE

Introduction

¶l Ryan and Jessica Kingston[1] divorced in 2016, following eight years of marriage and the birth of four children. At the time of their marriage, Ryan and Jessica were both members of the Order, also known as the Kingston Group, a polygamous religious community. Ryan remains a member of the Order today, but Jessica left the Order before the divorce.

¶2 During the divorce proceedings, the teachings and practices of the Order became a key issue as both Ryan and Jessica sought custody of their four children. Jessica argued that some of the Order7s teachings and practices, such as polygamy, were contrary to their children's best interests. The district court found that the children faced potential harm from exposure to the Order- specifically noting the group's practices of grooming children for early marriage and demonizing those, including Jessica, who have left the religion.

¶3 Based on Jessica and Ryan's inability to agree on decisions regarding the children, concerns about Ryan's behavior (including his membership in the Order), and a finding that Jessica had been the children's primary caretaker, the district court granted sole legal custody to Jessica. The court ordered that physical custody be shared by both parents. Addressing its concerns about Ryan's religious beliefs, the court also ordered in the divorce decree that "[t]he children should not be encouraged to adopt the teachings of any religion or be baptized into any religion without the consent of the legal guardian."

¶4 Ryan does not challenge the district court's award of sole legal custody to Jessica or its prohibition against him baptizing the children without her consent. But he argues the court's prohibition against him encouraging the children "to adopt the teachings of any religion" without Jessica's consent violates his fundamental right "to encourage them in the practice of religion"[2] protected by the Due

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Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He also argues that the court's prohibition violates his free speech, free exercise, and parental rights simultaneously under a hybrid rights theory. Alternatively, Ryan argues that even if the prohibition does not violate his constitutional rights, the district court abused its discretion because the prohibition "is not support[ed] by findings that show a rational basis for the ultimate decision." We conclude that Ryan's hybrid rights argument is inadequately briefed, so our analysis focuses on his argument that the prohibition interferes with his fundamental right as a parent. Ryan contends that any interference with this fundamental right must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest and that the district court's prohibition was overly broad.

¶5 Jessica counters that Ryan has no fundamental right to assert because he does not have legal custody of the children, and that even if Ryan's fundamental right is implicated, the prohibition was narrowly tailored to address the State's compelling interests in (1) "awarding legal custody based upon the best interests of the children"; (2) "resolving parenting disagreements"; and (3) "shielding the minor children from exposure to psychological harm resulting from teachings found to be harmful to them."

¶6 We agree with Ryan that he has a fundamental right to encourage his children in the practice of religion. And the court's award of sole legal custody to Jessica does not eliminate this fundamental right. Rather, the award of legal custody to Jessica limits Ryan's parental right only to the extent necessary to provide Jessica with the authority to make major decisions for the children.

¶7 We also hold that the district court's prohibition against Ryan "encourag[ing] [the children] to adopt the teachings of any religion" is not narrowly tailored to address the potential harms identified by the court. So we remand to the district court to craft a more narrowly tailored remedy. Because we determine that the prohibition violates Ryan's fundamental right-and are remanding on this basis-we do not reach his alternative argument that the district court abused its discretion by failing to make adequate findings to support its prohibition.

Background

¶8 Ryan and Jessica grew up in a polygamist religious community known as the Order. They were married in 2008 and subsequently had four children together. At the time of their marriage, Ryan was twenty-one years old and Jessica was only

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sixteen. Jessica gave birth to their first child just six months after turning eighteen.

¶9 On July 29, 2014, Ryan and Jessica separated, and at that time, Jessica sought and was granted a temporary protective order from Ryan. The following month, Ryan filed a petition for conciliation, but Ryan and Jessica were unable to work out their differences.

¶10 Ryan filed for divorce in July 2015. The divorce trial began in September 2016. The district court bifurcated the proceedings, granting the divorce on September 27, 2016, but "reserving the remainder of the certified issues for further trial."

¶11 After the divorce was granted, but before the resolution of the rest of the divorce proceedings, Ryan began to practice polygamy, entering into two new marriages. One of Ryan's new wives was a teenager who "had only weeks before testified at trial that she herself had no intentions of marrying Ryan." The other was Jessica's half-sister. Leading up to the second part of the divorce trial in July 2019, Ryan and Jessica engaged in discovery, debated several motions that are not relevant to this appeal, completed two full custody evaluations, and unsuccessfully attempted to mediate their outstanding differences.

¶12 In July 2019, an eight-day trial took place, with the district court hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses, including multiple custody evaluators. After the trial, the court granted Jessica sole legal custody, determining a sole legal custodian was necessary because Ryan and Jessica were unable to agree on major decisions. The court decided to award Jessica sole legal custody because it found that she had been the primary caretaker of the children and that "Ryan's religious practices ... represent a direct threat of harm to the children."

¶13 The court made both general and specific findings that Ryan's religious beliefs could be harmful to the children, stating that "[t]he Order's religious teachings jeopardize the health or safety of the children, and will cause harm to the children's welfare." Specifically, the court raised two concerns: (1) that the Order promotes the grooming of young girls to be child brides; and (2) that "[t]he Order's teachings alienate the children from their mother" because "the Order community as a whole engages in ostracizing outsiders and demonizing people who have chosen to leave the group; actually referring to them as 'the Devil' or 'of the Devil.'" And these concerns were exacerbated because "Ryan prioritizes plural marriages and adhering to his religious practices" over the best interests of the children.

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¶14 The court was particularly concerned that "the parties have three young girls who[m] Ryan wishes to raise in a culture that grooms them to be child brides." The court noted that Ryan had married Jessica, when she was only sixteen, and a second wife, who was only eighteen at the time of marriage. The court determined that "the potential for the 'grooming' of girls and young women in the Order represents a potential for significant social burdens, and the parties' daughters should be reasonably protected from the potential harms related to grooming."

¶15 Turning to its concern that the children may be alienated from Jessica by the Order's teachings, the court noted that "[a]ny attempts to teach the children to denounce Jessica would be abusive." The court found "that the Order community as a whole engages in ostracizing outsiders" and that exposure to these teachings "would be tantamount to abuse."

¶16 The court also found that Ryan's decision to marry Jessica's half-sister and an eighteen-year-old while the divorce was pending, coupled with his desire that the children attend Order-run schools and extracurricular activities, was "indicative of his inability to prioritize the well-being of his children." The court found that Ryan's two marriages exposed the children to "[t]he inherent confusion that comes with such intermingled familial relationships" and were not in the children's best interests. Looking at educational choices, the court found that Ryan had prioritized the Order over the children's best interests by insisting they attend Ensign Academy, a school run by the Order, despite the school lacking "qualified or licensed educators." This finding was supported by evidence demonstrating that the curriculum at Ensign Academy emphasizes "obedience to the 'Order'" and "compliance to Kingston authority...

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