When one parent has custody of a child, and the other has fairly extensive visitation rights, there are bound to be conflicts over how the child should be raised. Sometimes, the child, sadly, can become a bargaining chip that the parents use to try to settle old scores with one another, especially if they didn’t separate on good terms.
Few issues, however, are more personal, emotional, or contentious than religion. After all, wars are fought over religion all the time. It’s not surprising that, on the much smaller scale of family disputes, religion can be a major point of contention, especially when the parents are separated, and cannot agree on what religious faith the child should be raised under. Obviously, many people are extremely passionate about their religious beliefs. For most, it’s much more than a matter of life and death; it’s a matter of eternity.
It’s not surprising, then, that stories like this (also blogged about here and here) aren’t exactly unheard of in modern times. Essentially, the custodial mother of a 3-year-old child wanted to raise her daughter to be Jewish, which was her religion. The girl’s father, who had extensive visitation rights, wanted to take the girl to Catholic Church services.
The mother, as one might expect, fervently objected, and even went to a family court to get an injunction against taking the girl to Catholic services.
However, another judge has just vacated (links to full opinion, PDF) that order, finding that the father can take the girl to church while she is in his custody. The court reasoned that it will not interfere with a parent’s religious practices unless the parent who objects to it can show that it is harming the child, or has a reasonable possibility of causing harm. No such showing was made here.
It’s very likely that the girl’s mother views this ruling as an affront, and she certainly has a right to feel that way. It’s absolutely essential to remember, however, that these court decisions really only take one thing into account: the best interests of the child. This policy makes perfect sense – parents must not be allowed to use their children as pawns in a scheme to hurt the other parent. Accordingly, when 2 parents have irreconcilable differences about how a child should be raised, or who should have custody, the court will not consider the issue of which parent will be most offended or upset by an adverse decision.
After all, the parents in these cases are presumed to be mature adults, who know how to deal with hurt feelings, and are capable of recognizing that the world doesn’t revolve around them. A 3-year-old girl, on the other hand, is simply an innocent bystander in a fight between her parents, and emotional harm at that age can have far more profound long-term effects than similar emotional harm occurring at a later age.
And really, if both parents can at least agree that the child should be brought up to be religious (even if they can’t agree on which one), wouldn’t they see it as a good thing for her to be exposed to as many different belief systems as possible at an early age? As an outside observer, that certainly seems like a reasonable position to me, but, not sharing the religious beliefs of either of those parents, I’m sure their thought processes are very different from my own.
The mother argued that there might not be anything inherently “bad” about the girl being raised as a Catholic, but did present expert testimony that competing religious indoctrination would cause confusion, distress, and possibly resentment of one or both of the parents. The court was not persuaded by these claims, mainly because of the burden of proof placed on the mother in this case.
While family law decisions always revolve around the perceived best interests of the child, a court will almost always presume that the best interests of the child are served when outside parties interfere as little as possible, and it therefore interferes as a last resort. So, a court will not restrict what a parent can do during lawful visitation unless a very compelling showing can be made that failure to do so would cause harm to the child. In this case, the mother was unable to meet that burden.
In general, it seems that the court struck the right balance here. This is the type of matter that parents, as intelligent adults, should be able to resolve amongst themselves. After all, when they were married and knew that they were going to have a child, is it possible that 2 people who are deeply committed to their respective religious faiths wouldn’t have had a single discussion about what role each religion would play in their child’s life? That seems extremely unlikely. If they did come to some agreement, or at least a truce, on the matter, couldn’t that have continued after their divorce?
It should be noted that the father doesn’t exactly come out of this smelling of roses, either. When he had his daughter baptized, he called in local news stations, turning the event into a national spectacle, and what some would call a media circus.
I don’t hold it against a couple when they decide to get a divorce. If they’re not happy in their marriage, they aren’t doing themselves, or anyone else, any favors by staying together “just because.” However, if they have chosen to bring a child into the world, they need to realize that the universe does not revolve around them or their problems. It’s a sad state of affairs that a child can be used a tool by one parent to hurt the other.