Court reviews program after religious based sessions

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ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The Second Judicial District Court has terminated its relationship with a woman who prayed and offered religious handouts to a mother as part of a court-ordered mediation program.

Additionally, court officials also are reviewing each of the mediation providers who work for the Family Court program to ensure they are not forcing religious-based services on people.

The action comes after KRQE News 13 reported on the issue earlier this month.

“There were a lot of concerns in this building,” District Court spokesman Tim Korte said about court staff. “The judges take constitutional issues very seriously.”

Holly Salzman, a divorced mother of twin 11-year-old boys, was taking co-parenting classes as part of a custody case. District Court ordered the classes as part of a parenting plan to better communicate with her ex-husband.

The Family Court program uses private providers to perform mediation services. The court does not operate or pay for the sessions. But the classes are mandatory and ordered by the court.

Salzman was surprised when she says the provider, Mary Pepper, started the first two classes by praying. Pepper also gave Salzman religious hand-outs and homework.

“My beliefs are agnostic,” Salzman said. “I’m not a believer in religion. And it was pretty obvious that she was, and when I expressed my concerns that I didn’t pray, she said: ‘Well this is what I do.’ And she proceeded to say a prayer out loud.”

After weeks of asking District Court for an on-camera interview, spokesman Tim Korte sat down with News 13.

“Our staff went back and reviewed the entire list of all the providers to make sure there are no providers requiring participants to go to religious based counseling,” Korte said.

The District Court spokesman said clients that were using Pepper for court-ordered services have been sent to other providers. The court, he said, has terminated his relationship with Pepper.

Salzman said she complained to the court twice about the religious overtones. Then she stopped attending the classes, and the court took her kids away.

Korte said he could not comment on individual cases and would not say if the court was aware of Salzman’s concerns. But court transcripts show the court did in fact know about Salzman’s concerns.

In July, hearing officer Judith Finfrock testified in front of Judge Elizabeth Whitefield that Salzman had concerns about Peppers sessions being “Christian based and required her to pray prior to the sessions,” that Salzman “has secular beliefs and was unwilling to go forward with them.” But a couple of minutes later, Finfrock recommended to the judge that Salzman should continue with Pepper, saying “I have many a time recommended people to go to Ms. Pepper. I have never, ever heard that she is Christian based or imposes prayer.”

Korte said this was an isolated incident. He said the court never forces clients to go to religious-based classes, unless the client specifically asks for them. Korte also said Pepper gave a presentation to be an outside educator for the court.

“It was secular in nature. There was no indication of her preference of her religious-based counseling,” Korte said.

There are other concerns about Pepper’s practice. She’s been working with the court without a business license — it expired with the Ccity of Albuquerque in February. She owes $45 in penalties.

When asked if Pepper has a personal relationship with any court employee, Korte responded: “not to my knowledge.”

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