Facts: Mother and Father are the parents of four children. When they divorced, their agreed parenting plan designated Mother as the primary residential parent and gave both parents joint decision-making authority regarding the children’s religious upbringing.
Although the record is unclear, it appears Father moved to modify the parenting plan in some way (the motion was not included in the record on appeal).
The proof revealed extensive conflict over the children’s religious upbringing. Since the divorce, the parties have filed numerous petitions for contempt, orders of protection, and motions to modify the parenting plan arising out of, among other disagreements, the control of their children and their religious beliefs. Much of this conflict centers around Father’s refusal or interference with his children participating in extracurricular activities, such as Scouts, football, and other sports which he claims violates his religious beliefs.
The children’s therapist stated that one child “has become paranoid that ‘Jehovah’ is watching everything that he does and that he will be punished when his father takes him back to ‘Jehovah’s House.'” The children complained to the therapist about all the time they spent at Father’s church. The therapist said the children have increased anxiety, a distrust of Father, the feeling they are being forced to believe something they do not, and that he is not considerate of their own thoughts and beliefs.
The trial court granted Mother sole decision-making authority regarding the children’s religious upbringing, ordered that the children shall exclusively attend Mother’s church, and clarified that Father is not required to take the children to Mother’s church during his parenting time.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
Tennessee law provides that where parents are unable to agree on matters of great importance regarding the welfare of the children, primary decision-making authority should be placed in one parent or the other.
After reviewing the record, the Court affirmed the award of sole decision-making authority to Mother:
The record [shows] the extent of disagreement between the parents regarding the religious training of the children, the effect that disagreement is having on the emotional well-being of the children, and the anxiety they experience when they are required to go to church with Father. [The therapist’s] observations, opinions, and recommendation letters provide a substantial evidentiary basis for the decision to vest Mother with sole decision-making authority regarding the children’s religious upbringing. In an effort to bring a degree of stability to that aspect of the children’s lives as well as to diminish conflict between the parents, the court did not abuse its discretion in giving Mother that authority.
The Court modified the trial court’s ruling requiring the children to attend Mother’s church:
While mother is free to have the children attend [her church], there is no evidence in the record to support the order that they do so. Their religious upbringing is, on the state of the record before us, solely vested in Mother. While we acknowledge that the specific designation of [Mother’s church] may bring a degree of certainty to where the children go to church, in her motion Mother requested only that the order reflect that the children would not be forced to participate in or practice Fathers beliefs; granting her sole decision-making authority accomplishes that objective. Accordingly, we modify the order to remove the requirement that the children attend [Mother’s church.]
Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed, as modified.
K.O.’s Comment: (1) Courts are understandably reluctant to delve into matters of religion. After all, the First Amendment generally gives parents the freedom to expose their children to whatever religious beliefs they choose. It also prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. Nonetheless, courts have an obligation to act when children are being harmed by parental conflict. These issues require a delicate balancing act.
(2) Religious-dispute cases are few and far between. Compare this case with the Miller case, which involved a baptism.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.