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Faith-Mixing & Children

We live in a society where inter-racial marriages and inter-faith couples are the norm.  Seeing a man and woman in a committed relationship, whether married or not, is no longer reserved to those of the same race, nationality, ethnicity, heritage, culture, or religion.  But subjecting children to the combination of two polar opposite lives at the time of divorce, and expecting peace and harmony, is nonsense.

When we adults meet, whether it’s love at first sight or a prolonged encounter over months of interaction with the other person, we seldom discuss issues that will impact our children forever.  More often, people become parents without discussing important issues like, how are we going to raise our child?  When mom is Jewish and dad is Catholic; or when dad is Muslim and mom is Christian; or when one parent is Jehovah Witness and the other is agnostic, which faith does the child follow during a child custody battle?

Parents have a First Amendment right under the United States Constitution to practice the religion of their choice.  But the Court is often caught in the middle; trying to determine the “best interest of the child,” while balancing the competing concerns of the religious beliefs of the parents.  Sometimes, the Court will defer to the child’s wishes or the child’s past practices.  Because the United States Supreme Court has not yet decided a case involving religious upbringing and child custody, there is no uniform law that California must follow.

However, there are three standards that are accepted nationwide and other states have handled some of these issues.  If there is Actual Harm/Substantial Harm to the child, based on one parent’s actions regarding religion, the Court may make orders precluding that parent from continuing their involvement.  In Massachusetts, a father cut off his son’s payes (the curls customarily worn by Orthodox Jewish males) because it conflicted with his own beliefs.  The Court barred the father from sharing any of his Christian beliefs with the child.  Conversely, Washington’s highest court stated there is no harm in exposing a child to two religions (Mormon and Catholic) at the same time.

Other courts have ruled that a parent with sole legal custody has the right to make the religious upbringing decisions unilaterally.  Even where one parent has sole legal custody and the parent’s share a form of joint physical custody, Arkansas stated that the legal custodian parent had the legal right to dictate whether or not the non-custodial parent was obligated to take the children to church during the non-custodial parent’s time.  Other courts concur that parents with legal custody have a right to instill religious beliefs in their children, even if they have joint legal custody and they each instill conflicting religious views (Catholic and Jewish).

As much as you want your child to believe what you believe, they are an individual with individual thoughts and beliefs.  Teach and instruct them in how they should live, and respect that they too have First Amendment rights to choose what to believe.  If you are in the middle of a child custody battle or a modification of child visitation rights and differing religious views is an issue, remember that your child is facing a difficult decision.

What holiday will your child celebrate this year? Christmas, Chanukah, Ashura, Diwali, a combination of two, or nothing.  Keep your inter-faith child in mind this holiday season, when you start making plans, and realize that he/she may not be looking forward to another year of half-and-half religions and holidays.

If you have any questions regarding religious decisions and child custody, or child visitation plans and how religious choices impact your court order, the Law Office of Heath L. Baker will help you.  Please contact us at (951) 222-2228, or at our website: www.heathbakerlaw.com.  We would love to talk to you in person and discuss the family law or divorce issues that are important to you.