Twelve Tribes member Eugene Hunt and state order to pay child support

September 1993
The state seeks to have Eugene Hunt held in contempt for failure to pay child support.  The issue revolves around Hunt’s “ability to pay” and his claim that his religious beliefs as a member of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond deprive him of that ability.  The Island Pond church alleges that its tax status will be jeopardized if Hunt is ordered to pay support.  The church is apparently a far flung 1500 member organization with branches in the United States, Canada and overseas.
Before Hunt became a member of the Island Pond church he worked as a logger and in factories and provided support for his family.  After his divorce Hunt remained in the church community and has paid no child support.  He has been working in a church owned cobbler shop.  The shop is one of the church’s various money making businesses.  Like Hunt, none of the church member employees receive monetary compensation and any revenues from the businesses go into the church treasury to which individual members do not have access. In return for their labors, the church community and its treasury meets all of the member’s material needs (e.g. food, clothing, shelter).  Hunt testified that the church would support his children if they moved into the community with him.  He also claims that it would be a breach of his faith for him to work outside the community in order to pay child support.
Hunt has no physical or mental disability that would prevent him from engaging in gainful employment for compensation sufficient to pay child support.  He says that a judge in Toulouse, France excused a member of a branch of the church located there from paying child support.
Hunt’s central premise is that his religious beliefs, which eschew the earning of an individual income or the possession of independent property, operate to deprive him of an ability to pay child support.  From this, he argues that his failure to pay is the result of a matter beyond his control, which undermines the validity of the orders establishing the support obligation and prevents a finding of contempt.  Hunt also argues that requiring him to pay child support (presumably by obtaining some form of income) would contradict his religious beliefs and thereby constitute an impermissible intrusion upon his constitutional freedom of religion which he is entitled to hold.  The facts reveal that Hunt is able bodied, has furnished support for his children in the past and possesses skills that would render him  employable in situations beyond the church community.  In light of these facts, Hunt has made a choice not to act upon that ability.
The record is wholly devoid of any indication that the Vermont child support laws were set up with any invidious motive to discriminate  against or differently impact members of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.  These laws apply to tens of thousands of individuals throughout the state.  Accordingly, Vermont’s legal framework relative to child support qualifies as a neutral, valid law of general applicability.
We note that the Island Pond Church, through its communal treasury, takes care of the worldly needs, such as food and shelter of followers such as Hunt.  One of Hunt’s “needs” based on his legal duty is to help support the children that he has brought into this world.  Neither he nor his church may condition that legal duty on concerns as to whether his children are following all of the tenets of his religious faith.  Both Hunt, and, perhaps, his church, needs to now consider how he will meet that need.  Matters of religious belief, as a matter of law, do not furnish an exemption from that ability.  As Hunt has, and has had, the ability to pay, but has not done so, he is presently in contempt of all orders requiring payment of support.

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