As many families gear up for Halloween with their children, religious concerns about the holiday have led to an increase in “Fall Festivals” or “Trunk or Treats” to provide more religious families with an alternative to a traditional celebration full of ghosts and ghouls. During this time of year, religious tensions about acceptable activities for kids can come up between divorced parents with different religious beliefs. What is a parent to do when they can’t agree with their ex about their child’s religion?
Parents have a constitutional right to decide their child’s religious upbringing. By default, religious education is determined by legal custody – whoever has legal custody gets to make the decisions. If separated parents share legal custody, each parent can usually decide what religious practices their child participates in during their parenting time. This way, parents who have different religious beliefs can both teach their children about what they believe. As with most situations, it is best to work toward peaceful coparenting when dealing with religious parenting disagreements. Perhaps you agree that you can each instruct the children in your religious beliefs and take your child to worship services but won’t require the children to participate in major personal rites like baptisms or confirmations without the other parent’s permission or the children’s request. As children get older, they will have opinions that should be taken into account as well. Involving a mediator may help you communicate calmly and work out what is best for your family without involving the courts.
Courts want to avoid making religious decisions for children if they can help it, but when separated parents can’t come to a peaceful agreement or there is a danger to the child, sometimes the courts have no choice but to step in. In those situations, the court will be looking solely at the child’s best interest, without preferring any religion over any other or even over no religious practices. Courts will usually only prohibit a parent from sharing their religion with their child if there is danger to the child, for instance a practice of abuse, child marriage, or prohibition of medical care. If there is no danger, courts will look at things like the child’s history and connections with the religious community, the child’s desires, and practical considerations of time or distance when forced to rule on a child’s religious upbringing.
As a parent, if you are in an initial custody dispute, be sure to consider how proposed custody schedules will impact any religious practices that you wish to share with your children. Does the proposed exchange time interfere with your Sunday morning services? Are there specific religious holidays that you would like addressed in your custody order? Talk over these issues with your attorney to make sure that your concerns are addressed.
Religious beliefs are some of the most personal parts of anyone’s life and entrusting that aspect of parenting to a court can be a terrifying prospect. If you are struggling with religious conflict with your co-parent, an experienced family law attorney can help lead you to the best option for your family.