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Judge: Did autistic boy harass church?

LONG PRAIRIE - The legal question in the battle between Adam Race and the Church of St. Joseph is not about the rights of an autistic child, church authority or freedom of religion.

The issue, according to Todd County District Court Judge Sally Ireland Robertson, is whether the noises and behaviors 13-year-old Adam Race displayed in church meet the legal definition of harassment.

After spending a morning defending her son, who didn't attend Tuesday's hearing, against a restraining order that keeps him from his home church, Carol Race expressed worry over the judge's words.

"This is about my son's right to assembly," said Race, who has sent a letter to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson stating that she believes Minnesota law regarding harassment is unconstitutional.

Race, who acted as her own attorney during a hearing before Robertson on Tuesday, said she will fire herself and hire a lawyer if the court won't lift the restraining order.

Priest testifies

At the start of the hearing, Robertson said 90 minutes had been set aside for the proceedings.

They actually lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours, with Carol Race using a good share of that time to grill the Rev. Dan Walz, priest at the Church of St. Joseph in Bertha.

In May, Walz signed a petition seeking the restraining order that has kept Adam Race and his family out of the church.

The document claimed the youth, who is over 6 feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds, was disruptive.

The petition said the boy struck a child during Mass and comes close to knocking people down when he bolts from church.

The petition also claims the youth spits and has urinated in church.

Carol Race pressed Walz on whether the incidents listed in the petition were things he witnessed himself or was told about.

In many of the cases, Walz said he was informed by parishioners of what happened.

Walz kept his answers short, even when questioned by Thomas Janson, an attorney representing the church.

When Janson asked whether one of his main concerns was the unpredictability of the boy's behavior, Walz answered yes.

Race took the stand and talked about how her family worked to help Adam remain calm while in church.

She said tactics include sitting in pews at the back of the church where her son sometimes lies on the floor. Race said a length of fleece cloth is used at times to bind her son's hands because he finds it comforting.

Denies church claims

Race strongly denied many of the claims made in the restraining order, including the allegation that her son spits in church.

"I've never seen him spit, except when he brushes his teeth," she said.

When asked by Robertson about an incident in which Adam reportedly ran to a parishioner's car and started it up, Race said, "he did start it," but she added it happened on a Sunday when the family tried using medications to control the boy's behavior.

Janson and Race questioned the constitutionality of the proceedings and raised issues regarding church practice, but the judge said several times that such matters were not relevant.

"This is about whether or not there was conduct that was harassing in nature," Robertson said.

She said the law defined harassment as repeated incidents of unwanted acts or words that have a substantial adverse effect on the safety, security or privacy of another.

Harassment, Robertson added, can also be a pattern of attending public events after a person has been warned their presence is considered harassment by the sponsor of the event.

"That is a direct affront on the right to assemble and the right to free speech," Carol Race said.

"How many times is it that there are people protesting opposite sides of an issue?

"One side could say to the other side, 'Your presence here is harassment to us,' '' said Race, who added she has been in contact with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Robertson took the case under advisement Tuesday, stating she would soon issue an order.

"Go in peace," she said as the hearing concluded.