American Atheists sues church for 'forcibly' baptizing disabled child

The baptism of a disabled boy is seen in a screen capture of a video from Geauga Maple Leaf. | YouTube/Geauga Maple Leaf

The American Atheists, the leading secularist organization in the U.S., is suing a church in Ohio for "forcibly" baptizing a disabled child in 2016.

The group stated in a blog entry published late last month that the child, identified only as "V," was subjected to a full-immersion baptism against the wishes of his parents.

The child's parents, April and Gregg DeFibaugh, noted that the baptism took place at the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon during a church picnic in August 2016.

"The forced baptism was the culmination of more than a year of religious harassment by V's guardian ad litem and V's mentor," the group added.

The lawsuit alleged that the pastor, Matthew Chesnes, and V's "Big Brother" mentor, David Guarnera, had forcibly baptized the child, causing him to suffer "anxiety and extreme emotional distress."

"Ms. Vaughan's, Pastor Chesnes', and Mr. Guanera's actions are appalling. We are pleased that the DeFibaugh family will finally have their day in court," American Atheists' staff attorney Geoffrey Blackwell said, as reported by FaithWire.

The group noted that Guarnera was recruited by the child's court-appointed guardian, Margaret Vaughan, through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio (BBBS).

The lawsuit claimed that Guarnera had frequently discussed religion with the boy despite being told to avoid religious activities.

The incident was reported to the BBBS and the police before the family sought legal assistance, according to the American Atheists.

The secularist group noted that the DeFibaughs had initially filed a lawsuit in March last year, but it was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The judge had reportedly concluded that Vaughan did not act as a government agent when she proselytized to the family and assigned Guarnera to V.

The DeFibaughs were allowed to file another lawsuit in state court because the district court did not issue a ruling on their claims. Cleveland attorney Kenneth D. Myers has been retained to serve as the family's legal counsel.

The family is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, legal fees, as well as a declaratory judgment that the named defendants had violated their rights.

In a video posted online, the boy explained why he wanted to be baptized. "I want to be baptized because ... I'm not in the mood to do a lot and I've always had a sad time in life. And I thought being baptized would make God happy and make me happy as well," the boy said.