This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).






In Re the Marriage of:


Gretchen T. Ahlers, petitioner,





Ricky Lee Ahlers,



Filed May 7, 2002


Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge


Brown County District Court

File No. F500385




Matthew S. Vickery, 125 Main Street West, P.O. Box 303, Sleepy Eye, MN 56085 (for respondent)


Ronald Resnik, 6200 Shingle Creek Parkway, Suite 340, Brooklyn Center, MN 55430 (for appellant)



            Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and Parker, Judge.*


U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N




            Appellant challenges the district court’s determination that, even though the parties are awarded joint legal custody, respondent shall have the sole right to make decisions about the children’s religious training and their education.  Appellant also challenges the court’s refusal to allocate parenting time transportation costs.  Because we find no error in the district court’s rulings, we affirm.


            After a contested trial on respondent Gretchen Ahlers’ petition for the dissolution of her marriage to appellant Ricky Lee Ahlers, the district court awarded to the parties the joint physical and legal custody of their two minor children.  The court designated respondent’s household as the children’s primary residence and modified the joint legal custody award by providing that respondent would have sole responsibility for “decisions regarding the children’s religious training and their education.”  The court also ordered that appellant must bear the cost of parenting time transportation because appellant “has more available time and more available assets to provide transportation.”

In support of the ruling regarding the children’s religious training and their education, the court found that appellant is a practicing Lutheran and respondent is a practicing Catholic; that from early in the parties’ relationship appellant “has mixed religion and manipulation”; and that the parties are in conflict over the issues of religion and education, with the result that they “cannot cooperate regarding matters of religion or the children’s education.”

Appellant challenges the district court’s award to respondent of the sole right to determine the children’s religious and educational issues, arguing that the evidence does not support the award.  Appellant also challenges the order that he must pay all parenting time transportation costs, contending they should be borne equally by the parties.


On appeal from a judgment where there has been no motion for new trial, the only questions for review are whether the evidence sustains the findings of fact and whether such findings sustain the conclusions of law and the judgment.


Erickson v. Erickson, 434 N.W.2d 284, 286 (Minn. App. 1989) (citation omitted).

1.         Manipulation

Although the district court found that, in general, the parties were able to cooperate in raising their children, it also ruled that appellant manipulated respondent in the interrelated contexts of religion and education.

The district court found that the manipulation began at the beginning of the relationship:

From early on in his relationship with [respondent], [appellant] has mixed religion and manipulation.  [Appellant] told [respondent], shortly after [respondent] had already given birth to [their first child], that he would marry her only if [the child was] baptized and educated in [his Lutheran sect].  When he gave his ultimatum to [respondent], [appellant] in effect threatened to withhold affection and support from [respondent] and from his own child unless [respondent] agreed to his plan for the child’s religious upbringing.  [Appellant’s] actions in this regard were inappropriately manipulative and did not serve the child’s best interests. 


Contrary to appellant’s assertions, this is evidence of appellant’s manipulative behavior with respect to religion and child-rearing.  This finding is supported by the record.

The district court also found that, in the context of the religious and educational upbringing of the children, appellant has continued to manipulate respondent:

[Appellant] is using the issue of what type of school the children attend and which particular school they attend as a means to acquire leverage over [respondent].  This is consistent with his history.  [Appellant’s] first choice is the Lutheran school [in the town] where [appellant] resides and is 25 miles from where [respondent] resides.  If the children attend the Lutheran school * * *, they would be attending school in a different town than where [appellant] now resides.  They would also be attending a school that is 14 miles away from [respondent’s] residence.  [Respondent] is the party who has a Monday through Friday job.  Even though it is true that [respondent] works in [the same town where the Lutheran school is located], her shifts do not coincide with the children’s school day.  Indeed, every other week [respondent] must work in the afternoons and evenings, which requires her to go to [the town where the Lutheran school is located] at the time that the children would need to return to [the town in which they reside] from [school].  [Appellant’s] least favorite choice among the three Lutheran schools [is located] in [the town in which respondent] resides and would enable the children to travel between [respondent’s] home and school with relative ease.  [Appellant] is therefore not content that the children simply go to a Lutheran school, but wishes to use the school issue as yet another means of manipulating [respondent].


These substantive findings relating to the parties’ school preferences coincide with the testimony elicited at trial.

The district court concluded that, based upon appellant’s past conduct in the context of the religious and educational upbringing of the children, his manipulative behavior will likely continue in the future:

It appears likely that [appellant], if allowed to have a role in the children’s religious upbringing and education, will continue to use those issues as a means of manipulating [respondent].  [Appellant] agreed in 1996 to marry [respondent] only on condition that the children be raised in his religion of choice.  Today, in 2001, [appellant] is attempting to use the issues of religion and the children’s education to control where the children attend school and to thereby gain leverage over [respondent]. 


The court found that continual, drawn-out disputes over the children’s religion and schooling are detrimental to the children’s well-being, and it is in the children’s best interests if respondent has the sole authority as to these decision.  The court noted it made this decision only “to cut off future manipulation that would be injurious to the children’s emotional health and best interests.” 

            We must give due regard to the district court’s assessment of the credibility of the witnesses and to the inferences fairly to be drawn therefrom.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01; Conroy v. Kleinman Realty Co., 288 Minn. 61, 66, 179 N.W.2d 162, 165-66 (1970).  The district court had the ability to judge the credibility of the witnesses during the trial.  The evidence shows that appellant had been controlling in the past, beginning after the birth of the parties’ first child.  The evidence shows that appellant continued to be manipulative throughout the marriage and used his religion to justify his actions.  The district court did not err in concluding that, based upon the record, it can be inferred that appellant is likely to continue to manipulate respondent in the future as it relates to religion, and that appellant is extending religion into the arena of the educational upbringing of the children to manipulate respondent.  The evidence supports these inferences.

The district court also considered all of the appropriate statutory elements in granting to respondent the sole right to decide issues relating to the education and religious upbringing of the children.

Legal custody includes the education and religious upbringing of the children.  Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(a) (2000).  In determining whether to award joint legal custody, the district court is to consider:

(a) [t]he ability of parents to cooperate in the rearing of their children; (b) [m]ethods for resolving disputes regarding any major decision concerning the life of the child, and the parents’ willingness to use those methods; (c) [w]hether it would be detrimental to the child if one parent were to have sole authority over the child’s upbringing; and (d) [w]hether domestic abuse * * * has occurred between the parents.


Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 2 (2000).  In addition to these elements, the district court also must consider the “best interests” of the children.  Id.; see also Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1 (2000).  The district court is to make detailed findings on each of the factors and “explain how the factors led to its conclusions and to the determination of the best interests of the child.”  Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1. 

As noted above, the district court specifically found that the parties were not able to cooperate as to matters of the children’s religious training and their education.  The court also found that the parties have been unable to arrive at a method to satisfactorily address the issues of education and religion.  Finally, the court found that allowing respondent sole authority over these issues will be necessary to prevent ongoing struggles regarding them.  These findings are supported by the evidence.

The district court also concluded that the award to respondent of sole legal custody as to religion and education will terminate appellant’s future manipulation, which, if allowed to continue, would be injurious to the children’s emotional health and best interests.  The findings sustain this conclusion. 

The evidence supports the district court’s findings, and the court made the appropriate findings as required by law, and we will not disturb the district court’s judgment.

2.      Transportation

Appellant does not contest the court’s findings as to transportation costs but argues that it is fair and equitable that the parties share the costs.  The court considered appellant’s higher income and the nature of his work schedule and found that appellant has the superior financial and practical means of providing all parenting time transportation at his sole expense.  The court’s findings and conclusion are supported by the record.  Accordingly, we will not disturb the district court’s determination as to transportation costs.


*  Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.