Month: December 2023

Child Custody, Religion and Sweat Lodges

For many parents, religion and child custody disputes can make you sweat. After a father in Nebraska is enjoined from taking his son to his Native American tribal sweat lodge, he raises the freedom of religion as his defense. How will the court balance freedom of religion with child custody?

Child Custody Sweat Lodge

Sweating the Small Stuff?

The parents have an 11-year old son. The parties never married, and their relationship ended 10 years ago. In 2015, the father was in a severe automobile accident in which he collided with a wall at 75 miles per hour. He suffered a broken back, a traumatic brain injury, and bleeding in his brain.

At that time, a court adopted the parents’ joint stipulation that the mother receive sole physical and legal custody and the father received parenting time set out under their parenting plan. Six years later the father asked to modify the Order. In addition to answering the modification petition, the mother tried to enjoin the father from taking their son to sweat lodges.

A sweat lodge is a hole which holds stones that have been warmed by fire, inside layers of tarps and blankets. The father’s best estimate of the temperature inside the sweat lodge is 100 degrees at most. The amount of time inside the sweat lodge with the door closed is usually 45 minutes, although the amount of time at the sweat lodge is usually 1½ hours.

The father wants his son to be involved with his activities. He defines an “Indigenous life” as “spirituality,” a way of life more than a religion. He fears that by not allowing his son in the sweat lodge, its participants will not be able to include him in prayers.

Additionally, the child will not be able to hear stories of his ancestors, because the elders with such wisdom tell those stories only while in the sweat lodge. He argues an injunction his son from participating in sweat lodges violates his First Amendment rights.

Conversely, the mother believed sweat lodges are unsafe. Her son takes Clonidine for his ODD, which affects his blood pressure. Neither parent checked with the child’s doctor to ensure the sweat lodge would not have a negative interaction with the Clonidine.

The trial court enjoined the father from taking his son to the tribal sweat lodge.

Florida Religion and Child Custody

I’ve written about the intersection of religion and divorce – especially as it relates to vaccinations. Religion, religious beliefs, and religious practices are not statutory factors Florida courts consider when determining parental responsibility.

Nor is religion an area in which a parent may be granted ultimate responsibility over a child. Instead, the weight religion plays in custody disputes grew over time in various cases.

That’s because placing restrictions on a parent’s right to expose his or her child to his or her religious beliefs have consistently been overturned in the absence of a clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the child.

Generally, Florida courts will not stop a parent from practicing their religion or from influencing the religious training of their child inconsistent with that of the other parent. Religious practices can be restricted, however, when there is a clear, affirmative showing that they “will be harmful to the child.”

Sweat today, smile tomorrow!

Generally, the First Amendment guarantees “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Additionally, parents have a constitutional right under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to exercise religious practices and spiritual beliefs with their child.

When a court finds that particular religious practices pose an immediate and substantial threat to a child’s temporal well-being, a court may fashion an order aimed at protecting the child from that threat.

In this case, although there was testimony regarding prayer and spirituality related to the sweat lodge, the appellate court found that the father’s participation in a perspiration ceremony did not constitute a religious practice.

The father was not an enrolled member of any tribe, he really wanted his son to experience the sweat lodge – not only to learn more about Native American culture – but also because he thought it taught his son self-control.

Moreover, a witness testified that people from all religions participate in sweat lodges, and do not need to be tribal members. The mother testified that religion was not practiced at the sweat lodge. Instead, the mother described it as “part of the Native American culture” and posed a danger to the child. Neither parent confirmed with a healthcare professional whether the sweat lodges could adversely interact with the child’s medication.

Because the trial court found the mother’s testimony persuasive that the sweat lodges posed a threat to the child’s well-being, it determined it was in the child’s best interests to restrict his ability to enter the sweat lodge. The higher court find no abuse of discretion in that decision.

The opinion is available at Reason.

Divorce and Euthanizing the Family Pet

A New York court recently had to decide whether euthanizing the family pet without the knowledge or consent of the other parent during a divorce action violated a New York status quo order. To answer that question, the court had to first determine if the family dog was a marital asset to be distributed or a matter of custody and visitation.

pet custody 2

Cruel and Unusual?

The divorce was in May of this year. The Husband argued that the Wife vindictively violated an Automatic Order by putting their beloved family pet dog “B.” to death without reason, necessity or justification.

“B.” was their emotional support dog, and B.’s custody had not been determined. The Husband testified the Wife did not discuss B.’s medical condition or even give him an opportunity to spend time with B. before putting the dog down. As a result, he suffered extreme emotional distress over their dog’s death. The Husband asked for compensation for this loss in the amount of $1,500 as punitive damages and filed for contempt of court.

The Wife, on the other hand, argued that after the husband returned to the house with the police, he did not take the dog. The Wife also argued that the Husband’s pet was not an emotional support animal, could not even walk without a severe limp, had “too many” masses to count, and was on significant pain medication.

She also argued that she was given a prescription for a tranquilizer for the dog, transported the dog to the Vet, and the dog lunged at the Vet. Because of that, it was the Vet who recommended euthanasia.

The Husband responded that the family dog was adopted from a shelter, and that he was the dog’s sole caregiver. He denied that he was informed of the pet’s conditions, that she had the dog euthanized without his knowledge and consent. He argued that there was no urgent need for B.’s euthanasia.

Florida Pet Custody

I’ve written on the development of pet custody cases and statutes around the country before. Pet custody cases are becoming more and more prevalent as lawmakers promote the notion that the legal system should act in the best interests of animals. This is due, in part, because pet ownership has increased.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 36.5% of American households owned a dog and 30.4% owned a cat in 2012. As many of these households know, companion animals usually become members of the family.

Florida doesn’t have pet custody or visitation laws. Florida courts are already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of children.

Not all states have ruled out a visitation schedule for dogs like Florida. For instance, while Texas also views dogs as personal property, in one case a Texas court authorized visitation. A new California law changed the way pet custody is handled in divorce cases. The law gives judges the power to consider the care and the best interest of the pet when making decisions.

It’s Up to You New York

The Court reviewed the text of the Automatic Orders which state that neither party can sell, transfer, encumber, conceal, or in any way dispose of, without the consent of the other party in writing, or by order of the court, any property except in the usual course of business, for customary and usual household expenses or for reasonable attorney’s fees in connection with this action.

New York Automatic Orders are codified by a statute which is devoid of any reference to companion animals. Companion animals are not listed, nor provided in, the text of the Automatic Orders. The text of the statute only proscribes the disposition of property.

Additionally, the purpose of the law was to preserve the financial status quo of the parties. It accomplishes that goal by preventing a party in a divorce from dissipating assets in order to deprive a spouse of the property which may have monetary value.

New York statutes include pets in the equitable distribution of property section, but they also are part of the best interests analysis. Questions naturally come to mind. Was it the intent of the Legislature to continue to treat animals as property? Given that the drafters of the statute failed to include any definition – or guidance – as to how courts are supposed to determine “best interests” of animals, the Court is effectively left in a legal vortex to figure it out on its own.

The Court reasoned that the intent of the Legislature was to shift away from treating companion animals as property and ensure that they are given more consideration. Viewed in this way, the husband’s motion sounded punitive in nature, which is the antithesis of an application seeking an adjudication of civil contempt.

Additionally, even if the Court were inclined to find the Wife in contempt of court, the amount of the fine would be limited to $250. The husband had not proved the actual value of his loss of the dog and had not shown that actual loss or injury had been caused.

The court held that the euthanasia of B. the pet dog did not constitute a violation of the Automatic Orders even though the euthanasia was performed without a court order or agreement.

The opinion is here.