In the United States, all citizens are guaranteed the right to express their religious beliefs as they see fit. This extends to parents' rights to raise their children according to their religion’s guidelines and principles. When a child's parents belong to different religions, there can be some tension surrounding which religion the child should practice. If a mixed-religion couple divorces, the child's religious upbringing and maintenance of religious practices can become a hot topic in the custody discussions that follow.
The Child's Best Interests
As with all decisions about child custody, decisions about a child's religion are made with the child's best interests in mind. That means that if it is determined that religious practices play a vital, positive role in a child's life, it may be included in a family's custody agreement. An example of this is a Catholic child serving as an altar boy or altar girl during masses. If the custodial parent is Catholic and the other is not, the court may require that the non-custodial parent support his or her child's Catholic upbringing through actions like driving him or her to catechism classes, attending church with him or her, and supporting any religion-driven rules for the children created by the custodial parent, such as abstaining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
Sometimes Religion Can be More Harm than Good
In cases where religious practices are not in the best interests of the child, the court may require a parent to stop involving his or her child in the harmful religious practice.
If it can be determined that a parent's religious practices are harmful to his or her child, the court may restrict the child's exposure to the religious practices. Three principles are used to determine whether or not a child is being harmed by his or her parent's religion. They are as follows:
- Whether or not actual, substantial harm has occurred. If it has, the court may take action to restrict that parent's time with the child;
- The risk of harm stemming from the religious practices. This means that if it has not been definitely determined that harm has occurred from a parent's religion, but there is a strong chance that it could in the future, the court may watch the parent and child to later determine whether or not restricting the parent's right to religious expression with the child is the best course of action; and
- No harm required. If a custodial parent wants his or her former spouse to stop exposing their child to a specific religion or religious practice, his or her wishes will almost always be honored by the court. The custodial parent's wishes carry the most weight in decisions about the child's upbringing.
A Child Custody Lawyer Can Help
If you are currently going through a divorce and you are concerned about how your child's religious upbringing will continue once it is finalized, contact the Wheaton child custody attorneys at Sullivan Taylor, Gumina & Palmer, P.C. at (630) 756-5112.