Religious Upbringing and Divorce

Divorce agreements can dictate the religious upbringing of a child: which church to attend, or how strict a religious education should be. What happens after divorce if an ultra-orthodox mother concludes she is a lesbian and wants to live a normal life?

The New York Case

In last week’s New York case involving the Weisbergers, the parents agreed to give the children a Hasidic Jewish upbringing in all details, in the home or outside of home, including which school the children attend.

Three years after the divorce, the mother came out as a lesbian, disparaged the basic tenets of Hasidic Judaism, allowed the children to wear non-Hasidic clothes, permitted them to violate the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws, and referred to them by names that were not traditionally used in the Hasidic community.

The trial judge ruled in favor of the father, circumstances had changed so much that he should have sole custody because of the mother’s transition from an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic lifestyle to a “more progressive, albeit Jewish, secular world.”

The court noted that the mother’s conduct was in conflict with the parties’ agreement, which “forbade living a secular way of life in front of the children or while at their schools.” The court posited that had there been no agreement it might have considered the parties’ arguments differently.

Florida Religious Upbringing

In Florida, there is no provision in our laws purporting to authorize such judicial enforcement in married parents. Religion and divorce is a matter I’ve written on before.

In a divorce action, the court’s powers over custody of children are found in the Florida Statutes. When a court is required to decide an issue as to the custody or support of minor children, the sine qua non of the exercise of those powers is the best interests of the child.

There is absolutely nothing in the statutory listing that expressly makes the religious training of the child a factor that the court should consider.

The Florida Statutes command all parents to confer on all major decisions affecting the welfare of their child, and to reach an agreement as to any required decision.

When the matter involves the religious training and beliefs of the child, courts cannot make a decision in favor of a specific religion over the objection of the other parent. Generally, a child’s religion is no proper business of judges.

New York Law Changes

The appeals court in New York reversed the father having sole custody of the children, and final decision-making authority over medical, mental health issues, with supervised therapeutic visitation to the mother.

When presented as an issue, religion may be considered as one of the factors in determining the best interest of a child, although it alone may not be the determinative factor.

Clauses in custody agreements that provide for a specific religious upbringing for the children will only be enforced so long as the agreement is in the best interests of the children.

Importantly, no agreement of the parties can bind the court to a disposition other than that which a weighing of all of the factors involved shows to be in the children’s best interest.

The Washington Post article is here.