An Arizona man shunned by his family for what he says are religious reasons was denied visitation rights to his two teen-age grandchildren in Meade Ministries on Tuesday in Columbia County family court.
In his ruling, Third Circuit Court Judge Vernon Douglas said John Cooke of Sierra Vista, Ariz., did not offer sufficient proof that his daughter and son-in-law, Crystal and Tom Hendrickson of Lake City, were unfit parents. Therefore, the court could not interfere with the parents' decisions about their family.
"Unless there is some demonstration of harm to the child, parents have a fundamental privacy right to raise their children," said Christopher Craun, the Hendrickson's attorney.
A strong senior lobby has led to legislation giving grandparents visitation rights in many states, including Florida, in 1996. Florida's law was challenged almost immediately, and in recent years, courts have moved more toward ruling for an intact family unit.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in November 1998 that an intact family can include a single-parent home when that parent is deemed fit.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Troxel vs. Granville in June 2000 that parents have a fundamental right to rear their children under the presumption that fit parents act in their children's best interest. The ruling struck down a Washington law to grant visitation rights to any person at any time when it is in the child's best interest.
Florida law says the court shall consider grandparents visitation rights in the case of parents' divorce, desertion or a child born out of wedlock, and that grandparents must be willing to encourage a close relationship between the child and parents. Courts are to consider the length and quality of the prior relationship. The wishes of a mature child are also considered.
After Tuesday's hearing, Craun said he was impressed by the Hendrickson family. "My clients have a wonderful family, a close-knit family, and I think that's their concern."
The Hendricksons denied comment, referring questions to their attorney. Religion was not an issue in Tuesday's hearing, but Cooke said his daughter's religion is why her family has shunned him.
The Hendricksons are members of Meade Ministries, a Pentecostal-style church near Columbia City. The Hendricksons of South Dakota joined hundreds of Midwest families who followed Charles Meade to Lake City beginning in the mid-1980s for what was previously known as End Time Ministries.
Numerous family and former members of the ministry say members have cut off ties to families outside the group. They have been told they are "of the world" and a distraction to a holy lifestyle.
Cooke hasn't talked to his grandchildren in nine years. Phone calls go unanswered and birthday cards return unopened. He said he has a good relationship with six other grandchildren, who are not in the ministry, and had a good relationship with his older grandson, who was 9 when they last spoke.
"His eyes just lit up to see me," he said.
Cooke said he doesn't think his granddaughter, who was 4 or 5 nine years ago, would remember him. He petitioned to have them visit him in Arizona, but said Tuesday he would agree to visit them a little bit at a time in Lake City while they warmed up to him.
A court-appointed mediator met with Cooke and the Hendricksons on Friday, but Cooke said they would not budge on the visitation issue.
Cooke, who did not hire an attorney, remained upbeat despite losing in court.
"I'm glad I didn't use a lawyer," he said. "At least I got to say something ... I came down with the idea that I wanted to tell my grandkids I love them, and they were there, so they heard me."
"I was discouraged at first, but the more I think about it, the more I feel something good's going to come out of it."