A Minnesota woman pleaded not guilty today to violating a restraining order that barred her autistic son from attending mass at a local Catholic church and vowed to fight for the rights of disabled people to attend church.
In an unusual conflict between a pastor and a member of his flock, the Church of St. Joseph in Bertha, Minn., filed a restraining order last month to stop congregation member Carol Race and her 13-year-old son Adam from attending church services.
In court papers, the church pastor, Daniel Walz, says Adam, who is autistic, is disruptive and dangerous to other parishioners. He claims the 6-foot, 225-pound boy has hit another child, spat at members of the church and urinated in the church.
Adam's mother Carol Race denies that her son is dangerous and says it's important for him to be able to attend Sunday mass.
"I know the church firmly teaches that all people are welcome to come to mass," she said. "My son has a right to be there. And the pastor really does not have the authority to tell an individual that they can't come to mass."
Carol Race was cited last month for coming to church with Adam, in violation of the restraining order. She said she pleaded not guilty this afternoon and is scheduled to attend a mediation session with church leaders later this week.
Neither Walz nor Diocese of St. Cloud spokeswoman Jane Marrin could be immediately reached for comment on Monday.
Race said that church officials offered to have Adam watch mass from a video feed in the basement. She rejected that offer. "From a spiritual standpoint, there's nothing that says watching mass on TV is the same as being present," she said.
She said Adam has had what she calls "meltdowns" while at church. He lies on the floor and flails his arms and legs. Race and her husband have at times needed to sit on Adam or bind his arms and legs with a strip of fleece to get him to calm down, she said.
She said that Adam's behavior has improved in the last few months, but also admitted that Adam once ran into the parking lot after church services, turned on a car and revved the engine.
"Adam's continued presence on parish grounds not only endangers the parishioners, it is disruptive to the devout celebration of the Eucharist," Walz wrote. "I have repeatedly asked John and Carol to keep Adam from church; they have refused to do so."
Carol Race and several friends who have autistic children are asking churches across the country to reserve a pew for families with autistic children or who otherwise may not have been welcome.
"I think there are thousands of families across the country who are not going to church because they have not been welcome in the past," she said. "I think that's why this story is so important to so many families out there."