How is the Religious Upbringing Issue handled in Alabama Child Custody Cases?
The topic of religion can be controversial, especially during a child custody battle. In general, a parent’s religious beliefs will not be the only basis for a court’s custody determination. Instead, judges will evaluate various aspects to establish what custody arrangements will serve the child’s best interests.
Similarly, a non-religious parent will not experience prejudice in a custody dispute. The religious beliefs of a parent (or lack thereof) will not directly affect custody proceedings. However, a judge may consider a child’s upbringing in a strictly religious community or abusive religion when determining custody.
For instance, if a child is being raised in a specific religious community, there may be various beneficial and valid reasons to continue the religious guidance. On the other hand, if a parent believes in a disruptive or abusive religion, a judge may limit a child’s exposure to such religious practices.
Actual Harm Standard
A court will generally not prevent a parent from raising the child in religion with strict practices. For instance, a court will not restrict the parental right to raise the child in a faith with strict dress code, dietary, and other restrictions.
Correlating with this, courts have not found any actual harm resulting from a child’s exposure to two distinct religions. A custody order does not have to impede one parent’s religious pursuits with a child merely because they are different from the other parent’s religious beliefs.
Different courts have found no need to restrict either parent’s religious activities with the child in the past. If, say, one parent is Catholic, and the other is Mormon, the court may rule that no actual harm will occur due to each parent’s specific religious activities with their child.
A religious restriction can, nevertheless, result from one parent’s verbal derision of another parent’s religion. In such cases, the court may deem that the offending parent’s actions caused actual emotional turmoil to the children and may forbid that parent from conducting any religious discussions with the children.
Who Determines a Religion for a Child – the Court or Parents?
The law cannot prescribe a child’s religion, and the child’s parents must decide that. But if the parents disagree on religion, usually the custodial parent’s (the parent with primary child custody) desires on faith will prevail. Sometimes a court may even ask a non-custodial parent to bring the kids to church.
In one such case, the court directed the children’s non-custodial father to take the children to church and Sunday school when they were staying with him. The primary custody of the children was given to the mother. She had been denying the father weekend visitations with the children as he did not take them to church on Sunday. The court agreed that the father must uphold the custodial parent’s wishes and take the children to church during his scheduled time with the kids.
If parents share joint custody of the child, it is less likely that courts will force parents to subscribe to the same religion or follow religious practices, as described in the case above. In cases of joint legal custody, each parent is allowed to educate the children on the religious beliefs they subscribe to, as long as it does not harm the child in any manner.
First Amendment Rights versus the Child’s Best Interest
Every individual is allowed to enjoy religious freedom under the First Amendment of the Constitution. The law cannot discriminate against parents due to their religious beliefs or interfere with the religion parents decided to expose their children to. While courts are cautious in upholding parental rights, when divorcing parents cannot agree on matters of religion, judges must determine what is in the child’s best interest.
No national standard exists for courts to follow when evaluating religion in the realm of custody cases. The outcome of every case will depend on state law and the specific circumstances of the family. However, most states will use established legal guidelines in determining such matters.
The Choice or Independent Opinion of the Child
In Alabama, the family law court may follow one of the general legal standards in such cases. However, it could also seek the child’s opinion on the issue if the child is of an appropriate age and maturity level to have an opinion.
If your child’s religious upbringing is a bone of contention between you and the child’s other parent, you should consult a seasoned family law attorney to understand whether the child is of an appropriate age where their opinion could be taken into account.
Legal Counsel by a Skilled Family Law Attorney
When embroiled in a divorce, it is vital to work with a lawyer who will fight hard to protect your child’s best interests. The attorneys at the law offices of Smith & McGhee have years of experience in assisting AL residents in obtaining favorable outcomes in a divorce case.
Our empathetic and qualified lawyers will explore all available legal options pertaining to your child custody case, ensuring that you get the best resolution in your matter. Call us today at (334) 702-1744 to schedule a no-obligation initial consultation.