Religious Dispute Leads to Sole Decision-Making Authority in Ashland City, TN Parenting Dispute: Pankratz v. Pankratz

Facts: Mother and Father are the divorced parents of Child. In their divorce, they received equal parenting time with joint decision-making authority. Mother was designated the primary residential parent.

Mother is a Christian. After the parties’ separation, Father converted to Messianic Judaism, a religion that blends elements of Christianity with elements of Judaism.

Mother petitioned to modify the parenting plan to give her sole decision-making authority and additional parenting time on holidays. She alleged that Father was alienating her from Child by making disparaging remarks about her and her religion.

The proof showed their religious disputes were hindering the decision-making process. For example, they have opposing views regarding Child’s healthcare. Mother is a registered nurse. Father does not believe in man-made pharmaceuticals and testified that he is against vaccinating Child. Mother, however, vaccinated Child because she believes vaccinations are important to Child’s overall health, and Child’s school requires that Child receive vaccinations. Father testified that he has told Child that vaccinations are “not good” for her and that they “make her stupid.” Child’s medical records indicate that “patient states in her own words that dad tells her vaccines make [her] sick and make me not smart.” Mother testified she does not want Child to fear medical treatment.

For another example, Father desires to homeschool Child, while Mother enrolled Child in public school. Both testified that Child is doing well in public school.

Tennessee decision-making authorityFor one more example, Father believes Christian and secular holidays are sinful “stumbling blocks,” while Mother celebrates both. Specifically, Father testified that he believes participating in Halloween, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Thanksgiving is sinful. He testified that he prays over Child when she returns from participating in activities he views as stumbling blocks. Mother expressed concern that Father’s behavior is leading Child to believe that participating in Mother’s religious and secular holidays is sinful.

Mother claimed this causes Child to experience distress, confusion, and anxiety.

The trial court found the was a material change based on the increased conflict between the parties since their divorce. Mother was awarded sole decision-making authority over educational and nonemergency healthcare decisions and additional parenting time on holidays.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Parenting plans must provide for the child’s changing needs as the child grows and matures, establish the authority and responsibilities of each parent, and minimize the child’s exposure to harmful potential conflict.

Tennessee courts have broad discretion to limit or modify provisions of an existing parenting plan, including the allocation of parental responsibilities and decision-making authority, if the court finds the modification is in the child’s best interest.

Tennessee courts have consistently held that parents have a fundamental right to practice their religion, and an important interest in their child’s religious upbringing. Out of respect for these interests, courts strive to maintain strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents.

However, the welfare and best interest of the child are always the court’s paramount concerns, and a court may interfere when there is a clear and affirmative showing that one parent’s religious beliefs and practices threaten the health and well-being of the child.

The Court held the trial court’s ruling was supported by the evidence:

The trial court considered the evidence in light of the statutory factors and concluded that modification of the existing parenting plan was in the child’s best interest. While the trial court generally preserved the provisions in the original parenting plan, it also recognized that the allocation of parenting responsibilities and parenting time on religious and secular holidays was resulting in conflict between the parties and attempted to fashion a plan that would mitigate future conflict.

Based upon the record and the totality of the circumstances, we cannot conclude that the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s best-interest finding. Nor may we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in fashioning the modifications it made to the parenting plan.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Pankratz v. Pankratz (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, October 25, 2017).

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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.

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