Family Court and Religious School

In a race between schools for your child, when can a family court judge choose the religious school over a secular one? For one Kentucky family’s child custody dispute, the court of appeals decides which school enters the Winner’s Circle.

Custody and School

Starting Gate

In the Kentucky case, a Mother and Father shared joint custody of their daughter, who has been at the center of a protracted legal dispute since the parties’ separation in 2016. The parties could not reach an agreement as to where the child should attend kindergarten, and asked the court to resolve the issue.

The Father, who is Catholic, liked that Seton was a Catholic school but noted that the curriculum also emphasized general Christian principles, as well as secular subjects such as Darwinism and evolution (ed. wow)

Father said that he was willing to pay Seton tuition costs. Father expressed concern about child attending Berea Independent due to Mother’s pending criminal charges in Berea for second-degree animal cruelty. Because Berea is a small community, Father worried child could be stigmatized, even if Mother was acquitted.

Mother, who is Baptist, was not comfortable with child attending a Catholic school and preferred that child attend a secular school. Mother testified that Berea Independent was her primary choice because it was less than a mile from her work, was in a small town, and was where she went to school as a child. She also liked that it provided a K-12 grade education in one place and liked the open classroom layout of the school.

Following the hearing, the family court judge entered an order with detailed findings of fact, concluding that it was in child’s best interest to attend Catholic school.

The Mother appealed.

Florida Divorce and Religion

I have written about 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 the Florida 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. One of the earliest Florida case in which religion was a factor in deciding parental responsibility restricted one parent from exposing the children to that parent’s religion.

In one Florida case, the Mother was a member of The Way International, and the Father introduced evidence that The Way made the Mother an unfit parent. He alleged The Way psychologically brainwashed her, that she had become obsessed, and was neglecting the children. The Florida judge awarded custody to the Mother provided that she sever all connections, meetings, tapes, visits, communications, or financial support with The Way, and not subject the children to any of its dogmas.

The Mother appealed the restrictions as a violation of her free exercise of religion. The appellate court agreed, and held the restrictions were unconstitutionally overbroad and expressly restricted the Mother’s free exercise of her religious beliefs and practices.

When the matter involves the religious training and beliefs of the child, the court generally does not make a decision in favor of a specific religion over the objection of the other parent. The court should also avoid interference with the right of a parent to practice their own religion and avoid imposing an obligation to enforce the religious beliefs of the other parent.

The Home Stretch

Mother argued on appeal that the family court’s order compels her to send her child to a Catholic school she is conscientiously opposed to in violation of her constitutional rights.

The appellate court found that when parties to a joint custody agreement are unable to agree on a major issue concerning their child’s upbringing, the trial court must evaluate the circumstances and resolve the issue according to the child’s best interest.

The appellate court found substantial evidence to support the family court’s decision that sending child to Catholic school was in child’s best interest. The court specifically mentioned the school’s proximity to the interstate, its later start time, its teacher-to-student ratio, its on-site aftercare program, and the fact that child would know other students attending.

Perhaps most importantly, the family court felt it was not in child’s best interest to attend the secular, Berea Independent because of the possibility that child might experience negative social stigma due to Mother’s pending animal cruelty case in Berea.

Further, the trial court specifically noted its decision was not based upon religious interests. Mother “bear[s] the burden of proving that the decision of the trial court was based upon religious interests and such impropriety [will] not be presumed merely because the school selected had a religious connotation in addition to its academic offerings.”

The Kentucky Court of Appeals opinion can be found here.

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