Child Custody and Choosing Religion

The mother was Christian and the father a Muslim, but she converted to Islam when they married. After they separated, the mother reverted to Christianity. When parents share or have joint child custody, who decides the child’s religion? A New York appellate court just gave the answer.

Choosing My Religion

A Brooklyn couple divorced in 2009 with one child. Their settlement agreement gave them joint legal custody, and the mother had primary physical custody.

The agreement made them consult with each other about the child’s religion, but did not specify which religion the child would be raised. The mother taught the child Christian values and practices.

The child complained the father was pressuring her to adopt Muslim practices and threatened to abcond with her to his native Morocco if she failed to follow Muslim practices and customs.

The child asked the mother to call the police and school personnel. The mother filed for sole legal custody, and the father petitioned to enforce visitation and to enforce a purported oral agreement that the child would be raised as a Muslim.

Florida Custody and Religion

I have published an article on the intersection of religion and custody before, especially when that intersection relates to harm to the child.

For example in one area there is a frequent religious controversy: whether to give a child their mandatory vaccinations.  Usually, religion is used by the objecting parent as a defense to vaccinating children.

Whenever a court decides custody, the sine qua non is the best interests of the child. But, deciding the religious upbringing of a child puts the court in a tough position.

There is nothing in our custody statute allowing a court to consider religion as a factor in custody, and a court’s choosing one parent’s religious beliefs over another’s, probably violates the Constitution.

So, unless there is actual harm being done to the child by the religious upbringing, it would seem that deciding the child’s faith is out of bounds for a judge.

Ironically, that may not be the rule all over Florida. Different appellate courts in Florida have slightly different takes on the issue, and the question of whether a trial court can consider a parent’s religious beliefs as a factor in determining custody has been allowed.

The Brooklyn, New York case involved the modification of an existing joint custody order.

In Florida, the person seeking modification of custody must show both that the circumstances have substantially, materially changed since the original custody order, and that the child’s best interests justify changing custody. Additionally, the substantial change must be one that was not reasonably contemplated at the time of the original judgment.

Losing My Religion

Back in Brooklyn, the Family Court granted the mother’s to modify joint custody, and give her sole legal custody but granted the father liberal visitation, including on all major Muslim holidays.

The parties’ inability to agree on the child’s religion, the change in the child’s relationship with the father, her fear of his displeasure for not being a “true Muslim,” and her belief that he’d kidnap her to Morocco, constituted changes in circumstances.

The appellate court held that awarding the Mother sole decision-making authority with respect to religion was in the child’s best interests because the father’s actual or perceived insistence that the child follow Islam and threats to abscond to Morocco had a serious adverse effect on the child’s relationship.

The opinion in Baala v. Baala is here.