Whether a parent’s religion and religious beliefs can impact their ability to exercise child custody over transgender children is in the news. In Maryland, a father’s strict religious beliefs clashed with his children’s sexual orientation so much, the court had to step in to resolve the issue.
Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine
A Maryland couple with two children divorced in 2012. As part of their settlement, the parents agreed to joint legal custody. The Mother was to have primary physical custody, and the Father agreed to visitation every other weekend.
In 2022, Mother filed for a protective order for herself and on behalf of her two children, then aged 15 and 12. The Mother alleged the Father had caused her and the children mental injury based on abusive texts and emails he had sent to them.
At the injunction hearing, the Mother testified her older son told her he believed he was transgender. The Mother denied steering him toward identifying as transgender, but admitted she actively supported him by arranging for therapy and attending meetings of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
When the child told his Father that he identified as transgender, the Father opposed his son’s decision and refused to call him by his preferred name. Then the child began engaging in the self-harming behavior of “cutting.”
The Father then texted his child:
“What is your email address? I’m sending you an email and I’m copying your mother and my lawyer. I’m t[ir]ed the BS manipulations. Your grandmother doesn’t call you S[.] and neither does either one of your aunts and uncle up here and for some reason my Christian beliefs are being attacked, so the intent is for a trial, so that everyone can understand what your mother that has manipulated a wedge after you and I had already came to an agreement [to call you a shortened version of your given name]. Thanks[.]”
Then the Mother testified that their second child, the younger of the two, told her he believed he was gay. The Father texted the younger child:
You can text me anytime. Just between us and call if you ever need to talk. I will tell you like I told you before—you are being heavily manipulated and influenced by your mother and sister. Son. Listen to your dad and our father who created us (God) in this matter. Please please do not allow these demons you are surrounded by influence you. Pray my son. For protection. I love you. Dad.
Father admitted: his relationship with his children is contentious, that he called the police after Mother took the children to a Pride Parade, and that he then called the Crisis Hotline and Legal Aid. He testified that he is concerned for his children’s souls and has no intent to harm them.
The trial judge found that, while the older child was “worried” he was not upset. However, the court found the younger child was “frightened” by Father’s behavior and “worries” that Father does not believe him about his sexual identity, believing instead that it has to do with Mother’s manipulation.
The court entered the protective order as to the younger child and denied the petition as to Mother and the older child. The Court prohibited the Father from abusing or threatening to abuse the younger child; from entering his residence; limited his visitation, and prohibited the Father from sending abusive texts about sexual orientation and/or religion. Father appealed.
Florida Child Custody
I’ve written about child custody and transgender issues before. Florida, unlike Maryland, does not have legal custody, but the parenting plan concept. For purposes of establishing a parenting plan, the best interest of the child is the primary consideration.
In Florida, the best interests of the child are determined by evaluating all of the factors affecting the welfare and interests of the particular minor child and the circumstances of that family. Some of the factors a Florida court looks to include the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship, and the mental and physical health of the parents. None of the statutory factors involve the gender or sex of the parent and child.
In Florida, the court must order that the parental responsibility for a minor child be shared by both parents unless shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child. Detriment to a child could take the form of child abuse.
Child abuse is a defined term in Florida. In part, child abuse can mean injury to the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by a discernible and substantial impairment in the ability of the child to function within the normal range of performance and behavior as supported by expert testimony.
Strong Deeds, Gentle Words
In Maryland, the primary goals of their injunction statute are preventative, protective and remedial, not punitive. A judge may issue a protective order if they find abuse. In Maryland, “abuse” of a child is defined as the physical or mental injury of a child under circumstances that indicate that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or at substantial risk of being harmed.
On appeal the Father argued there was insufficient evidence to find that he caused mental injury to his younger child, or that he did so intentionally. But the appellate court ruled it was the younger child’s fear regarding Father’s views about his sexual orientation – and the Father’s seeming inability to see that his views caused and could cause a substantial risk of harm to his son – that the trial court had attempted to address in its order. Accordingly, the trial court’s restraining order was affirmed on appeal.
The unpublished Maryland appellate court opinion is here.