A New Mexico woman who temporarily lost custody of her two sons after she refused to attend court-ordered religious counseling sessions is speaking out.
Holly Salzman of Albuquerque, N.M., told local CBS affiliate KRQE 13 that counselor Mary Pepper repeatedly introduced Christianity into the sessions. Salzman identifies as an atheist.
“I walked into the session and the very first thing she said to me was, ‘I start my sessions by praying,’” she said. “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 allowed the station to record her sessions with Pepper, and the evidence is damning.
“The meaning in my life is to know love and serve God,” Pepper tells Salzman at one point. “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.”
KRQE also reports that Pepper gave Salzman handouts based on the Book of Psalms and assigned her “homework” titled “Who is God to Me?”
But when the station contacted her for comment, the counselor insisted she provides secular services to non-Christian clients. “I’m a believer myself and if a person is open, we talk about God. If they’re not open, it’s a secular program that I provide,” she told KRQE.
As for Salzman, Pepper asserted that she expressed interest in “exploring her belief system,” something Salzman denies. And the family court that ordered her to attend Pepper’s sessions claims ignorance.
A court spokesman told the station that “the court does not refer parties to religious-based counseling. Some of the counseling organizations where individuals are referred may offer optional religious counseling, but the individual is not ordered by the court to participate in the religious counseling.”
But Salzman says that when she contacted the court to complain about Pepper’s proselytizing, staff never returned her call. And when she stopped going to the sessions, the court took custody of her sons.
That forced her to make a difficult decision: She returned to counseling and finished the sessions, despite Pepper’s efforts to convert her.
It’s an egregious violation of Salzman’s First Amendment rights. But she should be commended for her decision to take this matter to the media. KQRE’s recordings and provide valuable evidence that Pepper violated her responsibility to keep her court-ordered counseling sessions secular. This media coverage may save others from the same fate.
Court-ordered clients make up a significant portion of Pepper’s business; she told the station that approximately 50 percent of her clients are referred to her via family court. And there’s evidence that Pepper may be profiting from her relationship to the court in questionable ways because she holds her counseling sessions in public libraries.
There’s no overhead cost to Pepper, but she’s legally prohibited from accepting money for her services in public libraries.
But she’s alleged to have done just that.
“She had actually explained to me that you need to be discrete 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.
KRQE confronted Pepper about the practice. She responded by ending the interview.
A look into Pepper’s background is revealing. She is a conservative Catholic who once taught at a Catholic elementary school and volunteered for Project Defending Life, a Catholic anti-abortion group. In a 2014 interview with the Albuquerque Journal, she insisted that couples who cohabitate before marriage have a higher risk of divorce, a statement that conforms to Catholic social teaching, but not to evidence. On a Facebook page, Pepper posted repeated rants about the evils of Planned Parenthood and abortion, as well as marriage equality and gay rights.
Pepper is entitled to those personal views. But it’s clear now that she prioritized those views over her legal and ethical responsibility to provide secular counseling to court-ordered clients. She’s free to set up shop as a Christian counselor; many do so. She is not, however, entitled to proselytize on the public dime. Salzman deserved better from our legal system – and so, for that matter, did her sons.