When Children’s Religious Upbringing Becomes a Legal Issue

when children's religious upbringing becomes a legal issue

When couples of different faiths marry, it’s invariably a discussion they have together. Most often, the dialogue continues even further when they become parents.  In some cases, children’s religious upbringing becomes a legal issue.

In best-case scenarios, mothers and fathers come up with a solution early on in their children’s lives as far as practicing their faith. They may decide that exposure to both religions makes best sense. In others, it might seem less confusing to choose one over the other. Some parents may decide they prefer not to pass on the teachings or traditions of their religions at all.

If couples stay together, the conflict generally works out with some sort of compromise. However, what happens when they divorce, and original promises no longer seem to matter? As you might guess, that’s when children’s religious upbringing becomes a legal issue.

A recent New Jersey Appellate Division unpublished opinion deals with a couple who divorced in 2016. At that time, their marital settlement agreement (“MSA”) specifically referenced the fact that the parents had “different cultural and religious backgrounds.”

Parents at Odds Regarding Children’s Religious Upbringing

The New Jersey Appellate Division decided this particular appeal on November 6, 2019. The court’s opinion is unpublished and does not deal with new law.  The ruling applies to the named parties.

The parties married in 2007 and had three children together.  When they divorced in 2016, the judge incorporated both their MSA and a co-parenting agreement as part of the dual judgment of divorce.

As far as the differences in their cultural and religious backgrounds, the MSA stated that any unresolved issues would first be addressed in mediation. If that didn’t work, they would then “seek court intervention.”

According to the case history, the mother is Catholic, and the father is Jewish. The father claims that the mother agreed to raise the children in the Jewish faith. To back up his contentions, the father asserts that his ex-wife took a course in Judaism and that the family attended synagogue services together.

The mother signed a “Declaration of Commitment” following the birth of their first two children, a set of twins. This represented an agreement that she would raise the twins in the Jewish faith.  Additionally, the youngest child’s circumcision was performed as part of a Jewish ceremony.

Meanwhile, the mother disputes the characterization of her choices, as presented by her former husband. She says that she “always maintained [her] Catholic faith and beliefs.” Although she attempted to learn about the father’s culture and faith, she never intended to raise the children in only the Jewish faith.

As far as the children’s involvement in the Jewish rituals, the mother said she felt pressured to agree to them. Additionally, the mother alleges that the father interfered with her attempts to expose their children to her religious beliefs, practices, and rituals. Notably, the latter occurred during the marriage and after separation and divorce.

Father Brought the Issue to Court

Two years after the divorce, the father went to court and requested judicial intervention.  In the first place, the father wanted the court to grant permission for the youngest child’s final conversion to the Jewish faith. He also wanted the children to go to Hebrew school and wanted the judge to order The mother to bring them there during her parenting time.

Although it’s unknown if there was evidence that the mother was doing so, the father also wanted to court to restrain her from making any derogatory statements about Judaism.

In opposing the motion, the mother referred to the MSA, which included language saying the children would be exposed to both cultures and religions. She sought enforcement of that agreement.

The mother’s motion contained one other request as far as Easter Sunday. Although the MSA stated that the children would spend Easter break with her unless the father was traveling, she felt he violated the agreement. Instead of turning the children over to her for parenting time, the father took them to local amusement park.  He claimed he was traveling with them.

Upon consideration, the trial court agreed to the father’s request concerning the youngest child’s conversion and Hebrew school. However, the court did not require the mother to take the children to Hebrew school during her parenting time.

The court also granted the mother’s request as far as Easter Sunday, starting in 2020. Additionally, the judge said that the mother could educate the children with her religious and moral values during her parenting time.

The father appealed the decision, and the mother initially cross-appealed. Subsequently, the mother withdrew her cross-appeal. The issues that remained were the father’s objections to the court granting the mother parenting time every Easter Sunday and allowing her to educate the children about her religious and moral values during her parenting time.

The Appeal

As far as the mother was concerned, the MSA and co-parenting agreement left open the children’s religious upbringing. Additionally, the mother asserted the court could not “properly interfere with her parental and constitutional rights to educate the children about her religious beliefs.”

The Appellate Division didn’t disagree. In agreeing with the lower court’s decision, the legal opinion refers to precedential case law.  The courts have consistently determined that they may “neither choose between religions.” Furthermore, children are entitled to “have the opportunity to participate in the cultural household routine and religious practices of both parents.”

The Appellate Division determined that the mother did not object to the children learning about Judaism. Additionally, she did not seek to prevent the children from continuing education in it. Although The father claimed that the mother agreed that the children would be raised in the Jewish faith, the mother disputed those allegations.

That said, even if the mother did agree to raise the children in the Jewish faith, the court could not bar her from educating the children about her religious and moral values during her parenting time.

The Appellate Division did disagree with one portion of the trial court’s order. As far as the sole event regarding the alleged violation on Easter Sunday, the Appellate Division did not feel it represented a changed circumstance as far as modification of the co-parenting agreement. Therefore, the original arrangement regarding Easter break would stand.

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When Children’s Religious Upbringing Becomes a Legal Issue