Some of the most contentious disagreements during a divorce or separation involve questions of child custody and religion. Increasingly, partners of different faiths are marrying and having children, and if these partners split up, they may disagree about whose religion the child should follow. When it comes to matters of religion, courts proceed cautiously because they are wary of trampling on parents' constitutional right to practice their religious faiths.
There's no uniform standard among the states in handling religion-based custody questions. Generally, a court will focus on what's in the best interests of the child. Read on to learn more about child custody and religion and how it impacts the divorce process.
Child Custody and Religion: Best Interests of the Child
In a child custody dispute, courts may deem it a point in a parent's favor to be active in a religious community, because one of the factors typically considered in making custody decisions is the child's moral environment. All the better if a parent intends to enroll the child in Sunday school or other religious school, in the eyes of many judges. If a child is old enough to have become an adherent of a particular religious faith, a court may deem it important to the child's identity and well-being to be allowed to continue in the same religious faith.
Because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, courts aren't permitted to compare the abstract merits of different religious belief systems. In Limeres v. Limeres, a father contended that the judge preferred his wife's mainstream religious beliefs over his own "organic belief system," but the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that no favoritism had been shown.
One exception to the principle of religious neutrality is that a court will not allow a child to be injured, either physically or emotionally, by a religious practice. However, courts will demand some proof of actual harm. In the words of the Washington Supreme Court, a court may not favor either parent's religious beliefs "without a clear showing of harm to the children."
Religion-Based Visitation Issues
Issues of religion can also arise in the context of visitation. If one parent has sole physical custody, the non-custodial parent may wish to involve the child in a different religion during visits, which often occur on weekends or holidays. What happens then?
Courts typically resolve these questions on their specific facts. Many courts have concluded that there is nothing necessarily harmful about exposing a child to two different religions. But a court won't be pleased if a non-custodial parent deliberately attempts to interfere with the religious choice made by a parent with sole legal custody. Legal custody generally includes the right to make decisions about the child's religious education.
Ideally, parents should strive to reach a mutually acceptable understanding about all aspects of the child's instruction in religion and address the matter in a written parenting agreement.
Having Disputes About Religion and Child Custody? Get Sound Legal Advice Today
If you're facing a disagreement with a former partner over your child's religious upbringing, a family law attorney can help you negotiate an agreement and, if needed, make a strong case to the court on your behalf. Reach out to an experienced family law attorney near you.