A woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico, raised concerns over court-ordered classes she took that were reportedly centered around religion.
Holly Salzman was ordered to 10 parenting classes as a result of a child custody case, and she hoped to get some co-parenting help in the process, KRQE reported (video below). When she got to her first session with instructor Mary Pepper, however, she says she was shocked by what she found.
“I walked into the session and the very first thing she said to me was, ‘I start my sessions by praying,'” Salzman told KRQE. “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.”
Salzman then contacted Family Court regarding the religious nature of the classes. She never heard back, and she later attended her second session with Pepper. During the session, Pepper reportedly prayed again.
“We went back to court" Salzman said. "I expressed concerns again about the religious overtones and they stated they hadn’t heard any problems concerning Mary Pepper with religion."
Salzman was so “disgusted and offended” that she decided to stop going to the sessions. As a result, her children were taken away — prompting her to finish the 10 mandatory sessions in order to get them back.
KRQE then reportedly went undercover and recorded video and audio of the classes that Salzman attended.
“The meaning in my life is to know love and serve God,” Pepper told Salzman in one of her first sessions back in the class, according to KRQE's undercover investigation.
“If you want to explore how God was in your past, how God was in your life and not in your life… I know you don’t believe in God which is fine but I know at some points he was in your life in some way," Pepper continued.
Salzman added that the class handouts included religious quotes and phrases.
“Every session there was some sort of religion that was intertwined with the sessions,” Salzman said.
Pepper defended her class to KRQE, saying that if an attendee is open to it, she will discuss God with them, but if not, she will provide a secular program. She added that she did not believe her class had religious overtones. Rather, she claimed Salzman brought up religion to her in the first few classes.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), however, does believe there may be an issue with Pepper's classes.
“No one should be put in a position where they are forced to accept training or therapy that violates their own religious beliefs and morals,” ACLU executive director Peter Simonson said.
The organization is now investigating whether or not the religious-based counseling violates separation of church and state laws.
“We’ve got protections in our country under the Bill of Rights are intended to try and stop that,” Simonson said.
In an interesting turn of events, it was discovered that Pepper conducts her meetings inside a public library in order to keep her costs down — despite the fact that city policy forbids the sale of products or services on library property. Salzman said the policy is something Pepper is aware of and as a result asks her clients to book the rooms and pay her in cash.
“She had actually explained to me that you need to be discreet about it because I’m not allowed to exchange money in the public library. So I had to kind of hide the money and then literally pass the money under the table,” Salzman said.
Pepper declined to comment to KRQE News about the cash payments.
“I think that this interview needs to be ended," she told the news station. “If you’d like to know more in private, I’d explain a lot about my business but to do this on the air is not appropriate.”
Photo credit: youtube.com, krque.com