Divorce, Religion, and Child-Rearing
Some of the world’s most devastating conflicts have arisen over religion. It should come as no surprise that, during the already fraught process of obtaining a divorce, many parents of differing faiths find it all but impossible to reach a suitable compromise on the manner and extent of their child’s religious education. Courts will attempt to find a resolution that promotes the child’s best interests and avoids any harm to the child.
When one parent has sole parental responsibility, then that parent will have the exclusive right to determine whether their child is given a religious upbringing. Where parents have shared parental responsibility, the question can become far more complicated. Courts generally approach questions of whether and how a child will receive a religious upbringing by evaluating both the child’s best interests and the parent’s First Amendment right to practice their religion as they see fit. A parent will typically have a wide latitude to expose their children to the parent’s religious beliefs, whether or not they differ from those of their co-parent. That said, Florida courts will intervene to restrict a parent’s religious practice where their practices or decisions influenced by their faith would cause actual or substantial harm to the child.
Examples of Florida family court cases where a court has determined that a divorced parent’s religious beliefs would harm a child are few, but they do exist. In one such case, the mother asserted that her religious beliefs dictated that her child not receive vaccinations. The father sought the court’s intervention, arguing that the religious belief preventing vaccination of the child would cause the child actual harm. In weighing the mother’s right to practice her religion against concerns that the child could become seriously or fatally sick as a result of the mother not vaccinating the child, the court decided that the child’s best interests outweighed the desire to allow the woman to practice her faith. The court awarded the father the sole right to make religious choices regarding the child.
When threats of harm are not an issue, both parents have the right to provide the sorts of religious experiences to their child that they deem appropriate, and one parent cannot generally be compelled to provide certain religious experiences to the other child. That said, courts will enforce most written agreements created by the parents detailing how their children’s religious upbringing should be handled, and a parent may choose to waive their First Amendment right to raise their child in a certain faith by signing this kind of agreement. Finding a family law attorney who can calmly and wisely navigate these types of conflicts between co-parents will make the process of reaching a suitable custodial agreement less heated.
If you are considering divorce in Florida, or are in the midst of a dispute over child custody, seek compassionate and knowledgeable legal guidance for your dispute by contacting the Pensacola offices of Crystal Collins Spencer for a consultation at 850-912-8080, with additional offices in Sandestin at 850-424-6683, and in Fort Walton Beach at 805-200-4652.