Thursday, September 4, 2014

Which Parent Decides on Children's Religious Training after a Divorce

A recent case from the Florida First District Court of Appeal discusses what, if any, restrictions are allowed to be placed on a parent regarding the religious training of their children. (Pierson v. Pierson, 1D14-79 (Fla. 1st DCA August 18, 2014).

In the recent case, the divorcing parents had three children (ages 11, 9, and 5). Since birth they had all been raised Catholic - the mother's faith. During the parties' separation, the Husband became a Jehovah's Witness. After being exposed to his father's religion, the parties' 3rd grade son went to Sunday school and told the class that: (1) their songs were wrong, (2) priests were bad, (3) their bible was wrong, and (4) there was no heaven.

The mother asked the trial court to prohibit the father from exposing the children to other religions. A licensed psychotherapist testified on bahalf of the mother that she found "the beginnings of a substantial emotional  problem" in the oldest son (then 9) as a result of "being immersed in and exposed to two religions simultaneously."

Based on this "demonstrated harm," the trial judge gave ultimate religious decision making authority to the mother. The Court prohibited the father "from doing anthing in front of the children...that disparages or conflicts with the Catholic religion." The mother was also prohibited from disparaging the father's beliefs in front of the children.

The District Court of Appeals (DCA) quoted the United States Supreme Court, "...parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children." The DCA went on to point out that "restrictions upon a non-custodial parent's right to expose children to their beliefs have consistently been overturned absent a clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the child."

In the case before them, the DCA noted that the psychotherapist's testimony was based on the report of a Sunday School teacher and not on an examination of the child. As a result, the DCA held that there was no evidence presented that the child was harmed by exposure to his father's religion. Therefore the restrictions placed on the father were held to violate his First Amendment rights and were overturned.

The bottom line is that restriction placed on religious training will be overturned unless there is demonstrated harm to the child based on a evaluation by a medical professional.

Jacksonville Divorce Lawyer


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