Shucking Child Custody and Freedom of Speech

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and child custody rights are in for a shucking when an Indiana family court modifies a marital settlement agreement. Years after a divorce, one of the parents discovers religion. The parents end up back in court on a petition to modify custody and prohibit a parent from talking about religion.

Going Back To Indiana

The parents of a daughter were divorced in September 2012 after the trial court accepted the parties’ settlement agreement. Pursuant to their agreement, the parties shared joint legal custody of the Child, the Father paid weekly child support, the Mother was the Child’s primary physical custodian, and Father exercised parenting time.

Then in 2022, the Mother filed a petition to modify, asserting a substantial change in circumstances in that she and the Child changed churches, and she and the Child now attend Seymour Christ Temple Apostolic.

Since changing churches, the Child stopped painting her nails and now wears only long skirts. The Child attends church three times a week, on Sunday morning and Sunday evening for services and on Thursday night for youth group.

The Mother admitted the Child was baptized without informing Father until after the baptism occurred. Mother testified she wanted the trial court to modify the parenting time to eliminate the Father’s ability to question the Child’s religion or try to talk the Child into believing that there is no God.

The Father testified he is an agnostic. He denied telling Child “there wasn’t a God” and testified he had not tried to “convince her the church she goes to isn’t something she should be attending. He said he wanted Child to make her own choice about religion.

The judge conducted an in camera interview with Child, and concluded:

The Court finds that [Child] has made an independent well-reasoned decision about her faith, which should be respected and encouraged.

The Court awarded the Mother sole legal custody of the Child, primary physical custody, and ordered that the Father shall not discuss religion with Child. The Father appealed.

Florida Child Custody and Free Speech

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children. Florida courts have to balance a parent’s right of free expression against the state’s parens patriae interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In Florida, there have been cases in which a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child. A mother went from primary caregiver to only supervised visits – under the nose of a time-sharing supervisor. The trial judge also allowed her daily telephone calls with her daughter, supervised by the Father, and ordered:

“Under no circumstances shall the Mother speak Spanish to the child.”

The judge was concerned about the Mother’s comments, after the Mother “whisked” the child away from the time-sharing supervisor in an earlier incident and had a “private” conversation with her in a public bathroom. The Mother was also bipolar and convicted of two crimes. The Florida appeals court reversed the restriction. Ordering a parent not to speak Spanish violates the freedom of speech and right to privacy.

Florida law tries to balance the burden placed on the right of free expression essential to the furtherance of the state’s interests in promoting the best interests of children. In other words, in that balancing act, the best interests of children can be a compelling state interest justifying a restraint of a parent’s right of free speech.

“Ope, sorry!”

On appeal, the Father argued the family judge erred when it modified custody based solely on religious beliefs and prohibited him from talking about religion with his Child.

In Indiana “religion” is not one of the statutory factors a trial court must consider when making a decision to modify child custody. Modifying custody based entirely on religion then – even if the Child expressed an interest in participating in religious activities at a church – was not a substantial change in circumstances to justify changing custody.

The appellate court also found the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – which prohibit the government from restricting expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content- was also violated.

In this case, the family court judge never found the Father was discussing religion with Child in a way that had a negative impact on her. The Mother testified Child “cries is withdrawn presents with a rash and/or hives, and her face is puffy” after visiting with Father. However, Mother did not specifically attribute Child’s reactions to discussions of religion between Father and Child.

The Mother did not testify about a specific instance during which Father spoke to Child about religion in general, much less a time when Father disparaged Child’s religious views or attempted to persuade Child there was not a God. For his part, the Father testified he never told the Child there was no God. In fact, he wanted the Child to make her own choices about religion.

Even if the Child had reported that Father was disparaging her religious views and telling her there was no God, the trial court’s total prohibition of Father’s right to discuss religion with Child is not narrowly tailored to further the State’s compelling interest in protecting Child’s welfare.

The family court judge’s order totally prohibiting Father from discussing religion with Child violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment. Because the appellate court reversed, it decided it did not need not address whether the order also violated his freedom of religion argument.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana opinion is here.

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