Free speech and family law clash again after a court tries to prohibit religious discrimination by ordering the parents not to criticize the other parent’s religion. How does the First Amendment balance family court orders that try to keep the peace and protect the rights of free speech?
Sleepless in Seattle
In the Washington case, the parents were previously married and share two sons. Both children have complex special medical and educational needs. They agreed to their original parenting plan in 2016, which contained joint decision-making responsibility.
Then in March 2020, both parents asked to change the parenting plan, and each sought sole decision-making authority. After trial, the family court awarded the Mother sole decision making authority, and among other things, ordered:
“No parent will put down Christianity to or in front of the children, or allow other members of their household to put down either parents’ spirituality.”
The Father argues the family court’s wording of the religious upbringing provision violates the First Amendment, and he appealed.
Florida Religion and Family Law
I’ve written about the intersection of religion and family law before. 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. 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.
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 trial 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.
But left unsaid is whether a court can restrict a parent’s right to free speech under the First Amendment if the speech relates to the other parent’s religion.
The Battle in Seattle
The family law order prohibiting a parent from disparaging Christianity to or in front of the children, or allow other members of their household to put down either parents’ spirituality was not discussed until a post-trial hearing.
The Mother identified herself as “a practicing Christian,” and the father stated, “I don’t identify with any particular religion.” The mother just wanted to be sure that the father does not have the ability to block her from teaching the children about her religion.
The mother was concerned:
“[M]y only concern is that my children have expressed that they have been told denigrating things about Christianity in their dad’s house. … I have no concern about raising my children with a respect for all religions and beliefs and non-beliefs.”
On appeal the court noted that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions regarding the care, custody, and control of their children. The parental right to determine the child’s religious upbringing derives both from the parents’ right to the free exercise of religion and to the care and custody of their children.
A parent’s right to direct the religious upbringing of a child may be subject to limitation “if it appears that parental decisions will jeopardize the health or safety of the child or have a potential for significant social burdens.
In other states, for example in Massachusetts, courts upheld a prohibition that a parent “shall not share his religious beliefs with the children if those beliefs cause the children significant emotional distress or worry about their mother or about themselves.
The Washington Court of Appeals found that, as written, the order limited religious topics the parents may discuss with the children in potentially undefined and subjective ways, and is not specific to non-disparagement of the respective parents’ spirituality.
The Court of Appeals of Washington opinion is here.