"Woman says religion prevents her from paying child support"

(AP, September 5, 2005)

Montpelier, USA - 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 her 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.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday.

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 other 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.

In 2002, Stanzione was 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."