Like most children, 13-year-old Kaylynne Shepp loves her dad, Stanley M. Shepp.

"Her dad is her hero," said Kaylynne's mom, Tracey Roberts of Hellam Township. "He saved her life from a wild dog when she was 4, and she still remembers it -- he still has scars from that attack. He is a very fun kind of guy ... until he starts talking about (polygamy)."

Shepp, formerly of York County and now living in Utah, believes it's OK for a man to have multiple wives. He considers himself a fundamentalist Mormon, though the Mormon Church officially renounces polygamy.

Shepp was forbidden from speaking to Kaylynne about polygamy until last week, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a 5-1 decision, ruled that he may teach Kaylynne about his beliefs despite his ex-wife's objections, as long as those discussions don't present her with "a grave threat of harm."

The decision has left Roberts afraid for her daughter, she said.

"My biggest fear is that she will be allowed to go to Utah with her father and go to a polygamist camp ... and I'll never see her again," Roberts said. "Because by law you only need one parent's signature to marry off one of your children."

Previously, a York County judge had prohibited Shepp from speaking about his beliefs with Kaylynne -- at least until she turned 18 -- and that decision was upheld by the state Superior Court.

The parents, who separated in 2000 and are now divorced, have joint legal custody of the teen.


Advertisement

In their ruling last week, the state Supreme Court wrote that the state's interest in enforcing the anti-bigamy law "is not an interest of the 'highest order'" that would trump a parent's right to tell a child about a deeply held religious belief, unless doing so would jeopardize the child's physical or mental health or safety or potentially create significant social burdens.

"I'm let down by the decision," Roberts said. "I think the (state) Supreme Court did an injustice to Kaylynne as well as other children ... whose parents are advocating beliefs that are against federal law."

Roberts and Shepp met at a Mormon church in York in 1991 and married a year later, but she eventually brought his growing interest in polygamy to the attention of church elders.

Shepp was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago, shortly before their divorce. He later remarried.

During a court hearing, Shepp testified that he preferred to tell his children when they are young about his lifestyle rather than "all of a sudden pop something on them like that."

Roberts said her daughter is "OK" with her dad.

"But she does not feel OK with learning about polygamy or being any part of polygamy," Roberts said. "She's heard about (girls) getting married at 13 and 14 and is now thinking, 'This could be a reality for me.'"

Roberts' lawyer, Richard Konkel of York, said she will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Whether or not they (choose to) take it is another matter," he said.

The attorney said although the ruling allows Shepp to discuss polygamy with his daughter, it does not give him the right to take Kaylynne to Utah. Konkel said they could also file a petition in York County Court to modify custody.

Konkel said to his knowledge, Shepp is "either engaged in or actively pursuing being a polygamist."

Shepp's lawyer, Dann Johns, declined to be interviewed, but gave an e-mail statement:

"The Supreme Court's decision should give parents throughout Pennsylvania confidence that there are strict limits to government intrusion into family life," Johns wrote. "This decision involving the intersection of custody law and constitutional law will assist the local courts in making judgments where previously there had been no clear rule."

"I'm very hopeful (the U.S. Supreme Court) will hear the case. I think it's a very important case," Roberts said, noting that "in the long run, this might be the best way to protect children (nationally)."

Roberts said her legal bill is so far about $21,000.

"I'm paying it in $50 increments," she said. "I'll be paying for a long time."