BERTHA, Minn. — Carol Race thinks it's important for her 13-year-old son to be in church on Sundays for Catholic Mass.
Leaders of the Church of St. Joseph once felt the same way, but not anymore. They say Race's autistic son Adam is disruptive and his erratic behavior threatens the safety of other parishioners.
The northern Minnesota church has obtained a restraining order to keep Adam away, an action that has been deeply hurtful to the Race family and has brought them support from parents of other autistic children.
"My son is not dangerous," Carol Race said. The church's action is "about a certain community's fears of him. Fears of danger versus actual danger," she said.
In court papers, church leaders say the danger is real. The Rev. Daniel Walz wrote in his petition for the restraining order that Adam — who already is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds — has hit a child, has nearly knocked over elderly parishioners while bolting from his pew, has spit at people and has urinated in the church.
"His behavior at Mass is extremely disruptive and dangerous," wrote Walz. "Adam is 13 and growing, so his behaviors grow increasingly difficult for his parents to manage."
Carol Race said Walz's claims are exaggerated.
"He's never actually injured anyone," she said. "He's never knocked down anyone. He's never urinated on anyone or spit on anyone."
Carol Race was cited for attending church May 11 in violation of the restraining order, and faces a hearing Monday. She says she can't afford a lawyer and will defend herself in court. A lay mediator is scheduled to meet with her and church board members on Wednesday.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. It is more severe in some people than others. Adam has limited verbal skills.
Walz did not return calls seeking comment, but Jane Marrin, who works for the Diocese of St. Cloud and is acting as a spokeswoman for the parish, said the church board tried working with the Races to find "reasonable accommodations." That included offering a video feed of Mass that could be watched in the church basement.
The family refused all suggestions, she said.
"It's a difficult issue," Marrin said. "There are no easy answers."
Carol Race dismissed the church's suggestion that Adam watch a video feed in the church basement, saying that "does not have the same status as attending Mass. Otherwise we could all just sit home and watch it on TV and not bother to come in."
"It's considered a sin in the Catholic church not to attend Mass on Sundays and every holy day of obligation," she said. "And that's what this is about. I'm just trying to fulfill my obligations."
Adam is one of five children. The family's home in nearby Eagle Bend has separate study rooms so the other children can read books and use crayons that Adam could otherwise destroy.
Carol said Adam has two favorite spots in the house, the prayer room and the kitchen table. "He likes to eat," she said, laughing.
Adam is prone to anxiety attacks. Carol said some of those outbursts force members of the family to sit on him to calm him down, or restrain his hands and feet with a strip of felt.
In his court petition, Walz said that after one service Adam got into another family's car, started it and revved up the engine while there were people in front of the vehicle.
"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.
"In fact, Carol told our parish council that she would have to be dragged from church in handcuffs if I tried to keep Adam from attending Mass," he wrote.
The Races have received support from other parents, including Chris and Libby Rupp, who brought their autistic daughter from St. Paul on Memorial Day weekend and sat in the church's back pew normally occupied by the Races.
"I think this case is mostly about not understanding autism," Libby Rupp said. "I wanted to show them another example. Ultimately, we just need more people to truly understand autism."
Rupp met the Races and said she could see why some people might be uncomfortable around Adam, but she added: "Never at one point did I feel that anyone was in danger."