If an interfaith couple has decided to divorce, philosophical disparity is likely only the first of their disagreements, and things can get even messier with children involved. When it comes to child custody, the good news is that a court will not show partiality to one parent merely because they hold a particular faith. However, religion does play an important role in raising children and is not irrelevant in the court’s decisions about primary custody, living arrangements, etc.
What if My Spouse’s Religious Activities Are Bad for Our Children?
When making decisions about who will live with whom, which parent will hold certain responsibilities, and other details of a child custody arrangement, the court will always weigh both the rights of the individual parents and the best interests of the child. However, the best interests of the child will ultimately take precedence, and the court even reserves the right to override one or both parents’ First Amendment rights and parenting rights if doing so is in the best interest of the child.
While parents are still free to practice their respective faiths as they wish and parent as they see fit, it can get thorny when one parent accuses the other of engaging in religious activities that are directly detrimental to the wellbeing of their children. In such cases, the court will investigate a parent’s practices and, if they are found to be actually, substantially harmful to the child, the court reserves the right to limit such faith-based activities.
Custodial parenthood significantly simplifies things, because a custodial parent holds the exclusive right to make decisions about their child’s wellbeing. If divorce renders one party a custodial parent and the other a noncustodial parent, the custodial parent will, legally speaking, have the final say and the court will defer to their preferences.
What Constitutes Actual, Substantial Harm?
Interfaith divorce and parenting arrangements are a relatively new legal frontier, so standards for determining custody in relation to religious beliefs vary from state to state. However, there are a few standards that arise regarding what constitutes actual or substantial harm caused by a specific parent’s religious activities:
- Being exposed to various religions does not harm children. As such, a court is not likely to restrict either parent’s religious practices merely because they are different from the other’s.
- Strict religious traditions do not necessarily harm children. Abuse of rituals and traditions may result in inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, the court does not view religious customs in and of themselves to be inherently detrimental to the wellbeing of a child.
- Physical abuse and the threat of abuse do constitute actual or substantial harm. If a parent’s religious activity or sharing of their religious views is found to be directly harmful, such as in cases of deliberate physical harm and threatening behavior, the court can and may levy restrictions on that parent’s First Amendment rights as a condition of their continued involvement in the life of their child.
What Happens When Interfaith Couples Receive Joint Custody?
The court does not consider exposure to two different religions to be inherently harmful to children and, unless there is evidence of a direct threat to a child’s wellbeing, a child’s religious involvements will be up to the parents.
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