Last year, actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorced after a five-year marriage. The cause of the divorce reportedly centered on the religious upbringing of their daughter. Holmes was raised as a Roman Catholic and allegedly objected strongly to Cruise’s desire to involve their daughter in Scientology practices. Holmes asked the New York courts for and ultimately received full custody of their daughter, Suri, allowing Holmes to control their daughter’s schooling and religious upbringing. Their custody agreement strictly limits Suri’s exposure to anything connected to Scientology.
May custodial parents stop noncustodial parents from exposing their children to a different faith?
The Constitution of the United States vests parents with the right to direct the basic upbringing of their children, including the freedom to raise their children in the faith of the parents’ choice. Where this becomes a challenge is after a divorce in which the parents are of different faiths because the First Amendment permits both parents to expose their children to their respective religious beliefs. Florida follows what is known as the actual or substantial harm standard.
Under this standard, Florida family law courts will only restrict parents’ constitutional rights to raise their children in their faith where there is convincing proof that the religious activity is going to cause actual or substantial harm to the child, as illustrated in a recent Florida decision. In that 2011 case, the mother’s religious convictions were against vaccinating her child. The court awarded the father the responsibility for making decisions regarding the minor child’s healthcare and vaccinations. The decision was predicated not on competing religious values but rather on what the court believed was in the best interest of the child’s health.
What can I do to ensure my child is raised in my faith after divorce?
Courts are reluctant to restrict a parent’s constitutional rights or parenting rights, so weighing these competing interests in a post-divorce contest over the children’s faith can be a balancing act. Courts are bound to find what is in the best interests of the child, and this is not necessarily going to guarantee either parent’s religious exclusivity.
Mediation and collaborative divorce provide the best methods for resolving such differences. Should those prove unsuccessful, you can, like Katie Holmes, seek a court order to permit you to determine your child’s religious upbringing without interference from the other parent. Your prior agreements, the way you’ve raised your children to date, their ages and other factors will all have an impact on the court’s decision, but it will be necessary to show that actual or substantial harm is resulting from the other parent’s religious practices.
For a thorough discussion of your particular facts regarding religious custody, speak to a knowledgeable family law attorney for advice.