Exclusive: Chicago Father Faces Jail for Bringing Daughter to Church

Feuding parents test boundaries of religion in family court custody case.

February 26, 2010, 7:18 AM

Feb. 26, 2010— -- Three-year-old Ela Reyes is caught in the middle of her feuding parents' divorce battle -- a private child custody fight that has erupted in a public firestorm over religion and the boundaries of faith and the law.

Joseph Reyes faces jail time for taking daughter, Ela, to a Catholic church in defiance of a temporary court order forbidding him from exposing the child to any religion but Judaism.

His estranged wife, Rebecca Reyes spoke exclusively to ABC News' Chris Cuomo about why she asked for the order and the jail time, in a case that is making national headlines.

When Joseph Reyes and Rebecca Shapiro first met while boxing at a Chicago gym, they knocked each other out. "There was a happiness about her ... a glow," Joseph said.

"I thought he was fantastic from the moment I met him," said Rebecca. "I loved how he challenged me intellectually. I thought he was great."

CLICK HERE to read the full transcript of Chris Cuomo's exclusive interview with Rebecca Reyes

Sparring turned to dating, and the two got closer. Rebecca, an up-and-coming lawyer, fell hard and fast for Joseph, an Army intelligence specialist preparing to leave for Afghanistan on a secret mission he couldn't share with Rebecca.

But the one thing he could tell her before shipping off to war was all she needed to know: He wanted to marry her. He popped the question, she said yes, and that gave him "something to make my way back to the states for," he told Cuomo.

When Joseph returned from Afghanistan six months later, the couple planned their dream wedding, a dream Jewish wedding, as it turned out.

Joseph was raised Catholic; Rebecca grew up Jewish. Although both said they were open-minded about religion, Rebecca's overbearing parents did not accept their daughter marrying a non-Jew, according to Joseph. Rebecca denied that, and said that she was OK with his religion as long as he agreed to build a Jewish home.

Their wedding in the fall of 2004 was a traditional Jewish affair. They signed a ketubah, a Hebrew marriage contract, and held the wedding ceremony under a huppa, a ceremonial canopy that symbolizes the creation of a Jewish household.

They broke a glass to thunderous applause and joyously danced the hora according to Jewish custom. "I had that death-defying moment where I thought they were gonna catapult me from the chair ... and I thought 'this is going to be tragic. ... But it was a perfect day," Rebecca happily recounted.

Joseph agreed: "Being back with Rebecca and actually getting to build a life together was great," he told Cuomo.

Storybook Romance Hits the Skids

Unfortunately, Rebecca and Joseph's marital bliss would not last. As Joseph's career floundered, Rebecca became disenchanted. "He just walked away from a series of things without considering the amount of money that -- that I had asked from my parents to support us. And that was really difficult. And then, all of a sudden, the entire financial burden was on me," she said.

They fought, said Rebecca, and "we just didn't see the world the same. We had different expectations for what two people in love should act like."

Joseph also blamed her parents: "Rebecca made it very clear at some point in time that her family, her parents were her primary family and that I fell secondary," he said.

Still, during this dark time came a blessing, their daughter, Ela, born in November 2006. Ela "is the nucleus of everything I do," said Joseph. "She is this "perfect, amazing little girl," Rebecca said.

But for all the joy she brought, decisions on how to parent her would bring a lot of pain.

With their marriage collapsing, religion became a battleground, and little Ela came into the cross fire.

They had firmly agreed to raise Ela Jewish, said Rebecca. "We had pledged in the marriage contract to raise Jewish children and so we had a Jewish home."

Their Jewish life, according to Rebecca, meant frequently going to synagogue, sending Ela to a Jewish preschool, and celebrating Jewish holidays. "Being Jewish is a humongous part of who I am," she told Cuomo.

Joseph told a different story, denying that he had agreed to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish kids, claiming that religion was not a significant part of their life.

But Rebecca countered with an inconvenient fact for Joseph. He converted to Judaism after Ela was born, complete with a "ritualized circumcision" that involved a pin prink to a very sensitive area. That takes commitment, Rebecca said, "that's a Jew right there."

Explaining why he subjected himself to that, Joseph said: "Because I loved my wife. And I wanted to see her happy. And I wanted to put us in the situation where being married to me wasn't problematic to her parents."

No matter whose story is true, they agree that the marriage had become toxic, and tensions were about to explode.

"I was angry," said Rebecca, "I was angry that my fairytale was dying."

And so was Joseph's. He suspected his wife was having an affair after she changed her cell phone account, seemed distant, and started wearing sexier clothes to work, he said.

One day, he said, he happened upon a cache of her personal e-mails, dozens of steamy messages between her and another lawyer.

Rebecca denied having an affair. "I didn't leave him for anybody else. I left him because of who we were," she told Cuomo.

But she did leave, and according to her, he did not take it well. "I called him to let him know that Ela and I were gonna go to my parents' house and he showed up the next day with the Skokie police, saying that I had abducted his daughter," she said.

Joseph said he was beat up in divorce court, a system that he believes is rigged against men. He lost early on: Rebecca got the home, the car, custody of their child.

Joseph Fires Back With Secret Baptism

But Joseph fired back. He sent Rebecca an e-mail with pictures attached, saying they were "taken of our beautiful daughter on the day of her baptism."

"It made me kind of sick that he would do something like that, when I'm the custodial parent, without talking to me," Rebecca told Cuomo.

Rebecca said that in her most cynical moments she believes he did it just to punish her: "He knew that it would really hurt me. It really did," Rebecca said tearfully.

"Because I'm Jewish. Because my daughter's Jewish. Because my husband was Jewish. And I never want her to think that she has to choose between her mommy and her daddy, ever," she told Cuomo.

But Joseph claimed that the baptism was not meant to taunt Rebecca, it was "an insurance policy on the soul. That's not indoctrination." Catholicism is important to him, he said. Besides, he asserted, "if Rebecca is as solid in her beliefs as she's purporting to be ... then the baptism is nothing more than some harmless sprinkling of water on a child's head."

Desperate to stop Joseph from changing Ela's religion, Rebecca took her case to court, and won.

In December 2009, Rebecca filed court papers asking that Joseph be forbidden "from taking Ela to church or taking other actions counter to Ela's Jewish education and upbringing."

She argued that the baptism represented "inappropriate behavior" and that going to church could cause "irreparable injury" and "harm" to her daughter.

The harm, Rebecca said, was from "the constant undermining of who [Ela] is, who she was born as, and who we agreed she would be in our home." "There will be confusion; there will be an abrogation of her identity," she said.

Chicago family law Judge Edward R. Jordan agreed with Rebecca, issuing what some legal experts called an extraordinary court order that temporarily barred Joseph from "exposing Ela Reyes to any other religion other than the Jewish religion, during his visitation."

This ruling confounded Joseph, who said that "the court system that took my wife's side has a legal obligation to prove harm. There's no harm to Ela that I took her to church, there's no harm that I had her baptized."

Angry and defiant over what he said was an outrageous and unconstitutional court order, Joseph marched his toddler into a Catholic Church, with cameras in tow.

"I was willing to die fighting for these rights in Afghanistan. There's not a whole lot worse they can do to me than that," he told a local TV station filming him leaving the church.

Jail Time for Going to Church?

After Joseph's media stunt, Rebecca rushed back to court, saying Joseph clearly violated the order and endangered Ela by putting her in the public eye.

As punishment, she asked that he be charged with indirect criminal contempt, a crime that carries up to six months in jail.

"Rebecca is trying to have me jailed for six months," Joseph told Cuomo. "I can't even think of any situation where I would want Rebecca removed from Ela's life for six months, regardless of the ill feelings that we have, regardless of what I think of Rebecca's parenting."

"I understood in that moment that I no longer had any semblance of a partner on the other side. This is about parenting. This is not about religion," Rebecca told Cuomo.

"He decided to violate a court order," Rebecca said. "And he got Ela embroiled in a media nightmare."

"At this stage, it's about Mr. Reyes taking the law into his own hands," Rebecca's lawyer Steven Lake from Lake Toback told ABC News.

But Joseph said she is missing the point: "This is an issue about constitutional rights. This is an issue about a court system that has run amuck," he asserted.

"He's not doing this out of spite, he's taking actions because he believes in a in a very fundamental principal," said Joseph's attorney Joel Brodsky. Joseph maintained his innocence and at arraignment pled not guilty to the contempt charge.

Rebecca and Joseph's private divorce battle has attracted national media attention and a very vocal public response. She said strangers have contacted her on Facebook, saying she should raise her daughter Catholic, and some even showed up at Ela's preschool, asking about her little girl. She blamed Joseph for putting Ela in this "dangerous position."

Joseph believes Rebecca is exaggerating, and said that the real harm is courts' intrusion into private parenting decisions.

"There are dads all over this country whose rights to be a parent are being infringed upon," he told Cuomo. "Noncustodial parents, overwhelmingly dads, get the short end of the stick."

How and when he worships with his daughter should not be up to a judge or his soon to be ex-wife, he maintained.

As they prepare to head back to court next week, both Joseph and Rebecca say almost the same thing: that they are open to exposing their child to both faiths, and that if the other would just reach out, as a parent, this might all be resolved.

Joseph, through his attorney, has proposed a settlement: Ela would be raised Jewish but "Joseph will be able to take Ela with him to church on Sundays, and to other major Christian religious observances when those days fall during his visitation periods."

Rebecca said she too would like an amicable ending. "I hope that, if nothing else, he can just see me as Ela's mom," she told Cuomo. "That he will help me protect her, going forward....like parents do?this perfect, amazing little girl, who deserves the very best in both of us."

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