Church settles lawsuit with nonreligious family over ‘forced’ baptism

Morning Star Friends Church
Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, Ohio |

An Ohio church has settled a lawsuit brought against it by a nonreligious family that alleged their son suffered trauma after he was baptized in a full water baptism when he was 11 years old. 

On Thursday, the civil rights advocacy group American Atheists announced that parents April and Gregg DeFibaugh settled their lawsuit against a local church, pastor, a youth mentoring organization, and former volunteer mentor for performing a baptism, which they said was forced on their son who is disabled. 

The DeFibaughs, who are said to be nonreligious but don’t identify as atheist, filed a lawsuit in county court against Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, Pastor Matthew Chesnes, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio. 

The lawsuit claimed that despite instructions from the DeFibaughs to refrain from religious activities with their son, his Big Brother mentor often discussed religion with him. 

The lawsuit said that on Aug. 28, 2016, the mentor, church member David Guarnera, took the child to a group baptism at Morning Star Friends Church. Along with Chesnes, the mentor was accused of forcibly baptizing the child by pushing him underwater. 

“Defendant Chesnes, with the assistance of defendant Guarnera, conducted the baptism by forcing V under water and holding his head under water to the point where V felt like he was choking and could not breathe,” the lawsuit says in part. 

The parents claim that since the incident, their son suffers from anxiety and emotional distress. According to American Atheists, the child suffers from nightmares of drowning that have prevented him from sleeping. 

The legal group could not disclose the details of the settlement. 

“Although no settlement or verdict could undo the anguish their son suffered, the DeFibaughs are pleased with the outcome,” American Atheists’ Litigation Counsel Geoffrey Blackwell said in a statement. “They are glad that he will not have to go through the ordeal of a trial.”

The lawsuit was originally filed in March 2016 in federal court but was dismissed when a federal court concluded that guardian ad litem, Margaret Vaughan, a member of the church who worked for CASA for Kids of Geauga County, did not act as an agent of the government by proselytizing to the family and arranging Guarnera as a mentor. 

The family refiled the case in a county court in 2018 for alleged violations of state law. 

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, court records indicate that a Geauga County Probate Court judge approved the settlement last week. 

The Christian Post reached out to Chesnes and Morning Star Friends Church for comment on the lawsuit and legal settlement. A response is pending.

Morning Star Friends Church describes its mission as making “disciples who love Jesus, connect people, share hope, and celebrate life.”

Chesnes received a doctorate of ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary and has taught online classes at Barclay College. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Malone University.

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