Should a judge make a child custody decision based on how much sex you are having? What about attending church, should that be a factor? A woman in Massachusetts learned the hard way that lifestyle choices matter.
The couple met when she was just 16, and the husband was 21. Initially, the wife lived with her mother and the husband lived with his parents. But the wife was “kicked” out of her home when her parents found out about her relationship, and she was moved into foster care.
The couple married after they found out she was pregnant, and separated right afterwards. During the trial, the family court judge granted custody to the father.
The judge made several factual findings in her decision about the child’s Catholic baptism, the husband’s Catholic background, and the wife’s lack of religious affiliation, even though religious upbringing was not an issue in the case.
The judge also detailed the frequency of sexual relations during the parties’ marriage, the wife’s sexual activity and abortion before she met the husband, and the wife’s sexual activity after the separation. The Wife appealed.
Florida Child Custody
I’ve written about the intersection of religion and custody a few times. Religion, religious beliefs, and religious practices are not specific statutory factors in determining parental responsibility.
Nor are religion and religious practices areas in which a parent may be granted ultimate responsibility. Instead, the weight religion plays in custody disputes changed over time in various cases.
Currently in Florida, child custody decisions are based in accordance with the best interests of the child. One of the express factors a court has to consider in making a child custody decision is the “moral fitness of the parents.”
As it relates to religion though, Florida courts have decided that, in general, there must be a clear, affirmative showing that religious activities will be harmful to the child for the religion to be a factor.
Merely weighing that one parent is church-going, while the other parent is not, does not fit in with the current standard in Florida about whether or not the religious practice, or lack of religious practice, is harmful to the child.
After the Wife in the Massachusetts case received the final judgment, in which she lost custody of the children to the Husband – in part of her sexual promiscuity and lack of religion – she appealed. The appellate court reversed.
The appellate court decided that the family law judge should not have considered the wife’s sexual history, as it was irrelevant to the division of care-taking responsibilities and the warmth of the child’s relationship with the parents.
The Massachusetts appellate court opinion is here. The Volokh Conspiracy article is here.