Lia Boldt couldn’t believe what her son was telling her: His father was taking him to a doctor the next day—to be circumcised.
She knew that her ex-husband, James Boldt, had recently converted to Judaism. She knew that their nine-year-old son, raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, had been taking classes at the synagogue in Lacey, Washington, where he lived with his father, who had custody. She even knew that her son might be circumcised if he converted as well, since circumcision, traditionally, is obligatory for Jewish males.
What Lia didn’t know—what she said she was hearing for the first time in May 2004—was that her son didn’t want to be circumcised and was afraid to tell his father. She had to act fast.
The next day, she filed for a temporary restraining order against her ex-husband to prevent the circumcision. She got it, then filed a motion to keep James from having the boy circumcised at all, and another to have custody switched to her.
She’d appealed for a change in custody before, but this time, the case would travel all the way to the supreme court of Oregon, the state where she lived.
Since their divorce in 1999, when their son was four, the Boldts had battled over who should be the primary caregiver. First it was Lia. Then in 2002, the court gave James sole custody because it determined that Lia’s attitude toward James was turning the boy against his father. Lia’s appeals were still awaiting court review when she filed the request to block the circumcision.
James, insisting that his son did want the procedure, submitted an affidavit from the boy’s doctor in support of his claim. James also argued that stopping him from having his son circumcised violated his own religious rights.
The trial court ruled that decisions regarding elective surgery rest, as they always have, with the custodial parent—in this case, James Boldt. Still, the court barred the circumcision from taking place until the prior custody appeals were resolved.
Lia wasn’t satisfied. She thought the procedure could have “grave and drastic consequences,” both physically and emotionally. So she appealed again, and the case made its way to the state supreme court in November 2007. This time, both Boldts brought reinforcements.
James arrived in the courtroom with representatives from the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Their brief argued that a parent can’t lose custody just because he decided to have his child circumcised for religious reasons—and, furthermore, that a custodial parent is in fact obligated to make medical and religious choices for a child.
“The father’s decision can’t be trumped by the mother not liking it,” says Steve Freeman, legal affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League. “That would overturn a custody system in our nation that is long-standing and stable.” If Lia Boldt received custody on her claims, he argued, the courts would soon be clogged with battles over ear piercing and tonsil removal.
But what about the boy? Lia’s brief was accompanied by one prepared by Doctors Opposing Circumcision, which argued that her ex-husband’s religious rights shouldn’t outweigh his son’s inalienable rights. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parents can’t use their belief system to endanger or cause pain to a child,” says John Geisheker, the group’s executive director, who said the circumcision should wait until the boy turns 18 and can choose for himself.
Throughout five years of deliberations—with many affidavits, briefs, and claims from both parents about their son’s wishes—the boy was never questioned, not even in a judge’s private chambers. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that he didn’t need to wait until age 18 to make up his mind. It decided that the 14-year-old should be asked now what he wants.
Last April, at a hearing in the judge’s chambers of the Jackson County Circuit Court, the boy finally spoke for himself: He did not want to be circumcised. He also said he didn’t want to convert to Judaism, was afraid to tell his father how he felt, and was even afraid to continue living with him. It took five more months to resolve the custody issue, but finally, in September, the judge approved a settlement that James proposed and Lia accepted: The Boldts will have joint custody, with Lia as the primary parent and James receiving visitation. The main factor in their agreement: their son’s preference.