Can a Court Decide a Child’s Religion?

Two Illinois parents are battling over whether to raise their child exclusively in the Jewish faith or in both the Jewish and Catholic faiths.

Facts: The parents agreed to raise their child in the Jewish faith.  When they divorced, the mother was given decisionmaking authority over the child’s religious upbringing.  The father subsequently converted to Catholicism and wanted to expose the child to that faith.  The mother objected, arguing the exposure to two faiths would be confusing to the child.  The Illinois court entered an injunction prohibiting the father from exposing the child to Catholicism.  The father defied the court by inviting the local media to attend the child’s Catholic baptism.  The mother asked the court to hold the father in contempt of court.

There is no question the father willfully defied the court.  The question is whether a court should wade into religious waters in the first place.  Can (or should) a court decide a child’s religion?

In Tennessee, the parenting plan requires the parties (or the court if the parent’s cannot agree) to decide who will have decisionmaking authority over the child’s religious upbringing, whether it be one parent or joint decisionmaking.  In my experience, trial courts are rightfully wary of usurping either parent’s right to expose their child to whatever religion they choose.

There are very few reported Tennessee decisions touching upon the subject of religion.  The Court of Appeals has expressly stated that a parent may not be deprived of custody solely because the court disagrees with the parent’s religious beliefs.  The fact that one parent will expose the child to religious training while the other will not is a factor the court can consider, however.

The ideal solution would be for the parents to work together to expose children to both religions in an even-handed and respectful manner (i.e., not telling the children they will go to hell if they aren’t baptized) and let the children decide for themselves when they get older.  This is a subject that sometimes evokes great passion from parents who would do well to remember these disputes are very confusing to the children.  The children’s best interest must always be the paramount concern.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

2 thoughts on “Can a Court Decide a Child’s Religion?

    1. this case is very clear ,the parents agreed to raise the child in the Jewish faith.The mother was given decision making authority over the childs religious upbringing.The mother feels exposure to two faiths would be confusing to the child .I agree with the mother .The statement made in the last paragraph that the ideal solution would be for parents to work together and expose the children to both religions ,well that would be only , only if both parents agree to that .I do not believe the courts have the right to force parents and their children to attend two different religions when that is not what they want .It is a severe violation of the first amendment ! Once again this case is clear .the mother has the absolute right in this case .We must all learn to respect all religions and hopefully teach our children that ! I taught my children that all religions can be beautiful if it brings a person closer to GOD. We have our own religious preference but we can respect others.But children should be provided stability , stability in all areas of their lives ,growing up with divorced parents is hard enough as it is ,people have mercy on the children ! allow them a stable home life please ! One religion ,one faith ,whether Jew or catholic or whatever religion .Read the first amendment ,and have parents agree if possible ,if not the primary custodial parent trumps ! that would be best interest of the children ,stability.

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