New York court rules on case of a child's religious training

When parents of different religions divorce, one of the matters addressed in the custody agreement, particularly if one or both is a devout practitioner of a faith, is often who will be responsible for determining the children's religious upbringing. This month, a New York appellate court upheld a family court ruling on a case where that was not spelled out in the custody agreement, but became a serious issue.

The case involved a couple whose daughter was just two at the time of their divorce in 2009. The woman, who was Christian, converted to Islam when she married her husband, who is Muslim. When they broke up, she returned to her Christian faith.

In the custody agreement, they stated that they would consult each other when their child was older regarding her religious upbringing. They did not state in which faith the child would be raised.

The couple had joint legal custody and the mother was given primary physical custody of her daughter. She has been raising her Christian. However, when the girl was about 7 years old, she told her mother that her father wanted her to be a practicing Muslim and had threatened to take her to his native Morocco if she didn't.

The mother sought a custody modification when the girl was 10 that would give her sole legal custody of the girl and restrict the father's visitation rights. The father claimed that he and his former wife had a verbal agreement that the girl would be raised a Muslim.

The court gave the mother sole legal custody. However, it gave the father generous visitation rights, including all of his major holidays.

The appellate court determined that the lower court had properly ruled in the "best interests of the child" when giving the mother the sole ability to determine her daughter's religious upbringing and allowing her to continue to see her father and be exposed to both religions.

It's unfortunate when a child is placed in this position on any matter where their parents disagree, including religion. The more detailed a custody agreement and parenting plan are from the outset, the easier it can be to enforce them.

While it's impossible for parents to anticipate every possible source of conflict, particularly if their kids are very young, a New York family law attorney can help you seek a custody agreement that is as detailed as reasonably possible.

Source: Reason, "Child Custody, Religion, and Children's Reactions to a Parent's Religious Demands," Eugene Volokh, Feb. 15, 2018

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