Can Religion Affect Child Custody?

Matters of child custody can be complicated. It can be difficult for parents to navigate the legal process and many factors may affect the court’s decision to award custody. If you’re in the middle of a contentious divorce, you may be wondering if religious beliefs can affect the child custody arrangements. The simple answer is: it depends.

Not a Sole Factor

First, it’s important to understand that your (or your spouse’s) religious beliefs alone won’t sway the courts one way or another with regard to a custody arrangement. The courts are only concerned with what is in the child’s best interest when making a determination of custody. A parent’s religious beliefs won’t directly play into a judge’s child custody decision, but a child’s participation in a potentially abusive religious environment might merit consideration. If one parent adheres to a violent or harmful religion, a judge might decide that it’s in the child’s best interest to limit exposure to that religion.

A Constitutional Right

The first amendment guarantees freedom of expression, including religion. As such, a judge cannot limit a parent’s participation in religious activities, but he or she can intervene if proof exists of actual or substantial harm. This is referred to as an “actual harm standard.” Here are a few examples of what actual harm is NOT:

  • Raising a child in a religion that’s classified as “high demand:” with dietary, dress, or activity restrictions
  • Exposing a child to different religions, even if two parent’s religious beliefs conflict

On the other hand, a judge may be able to restrict religious activities when they result in harm to the child. For example, one Massachusetts case involved children being raised in the Orthodox Jewish faith. The father cut off his son’s payes (customary curls) and told him he was going to hell. In this case, the court found that the father caused emotional harm to the child and he was barred from discussing religion with his children.

Determinations in Custody Arrangements

Generally, the courts should not consider religion in matters of child custody, unless there is a compelling reason to believe removing a child from a parent’s religious beliefs is in his or her best interest. Instead, the most common factors that influence a child custody arrangement include:

  • Providing the least amount of disruption to a child’s routine. For this reason, the parent who generally provides the most childcare will likely get physical custody.
  • Providing the child with the most stable home life. For example, it’s preferable to allow a child to remain in his or her community, school system, and nearby extended family.
  • Whether each parent is fit to provide emotional and financial stability to the child.

Looking at these factors, it’s clear that religion is typically not a direct influencer of child custody. However, it could indirectly affect the decision. For example, if the child is raised in a religious community, it might be advantageous to maintain those ties to help maintain stability in the child’s life. On the other hand, if a parent is involved in an abusive or violent religious environment, this could present harm to the child and affect a parent’s right to custody.

Choosing a Child’s Religion

Finally, the courts cannot prescribe or choose a religion for the child – that is the sole responsibility of the parent. However, in cases where parent’s religious beliefs directly conflict, the courts may rule that the custodial parent gets to choose the child’s religious upbringing.

Religion does not directly affect matters of child custody unless it presents harm to a child. However, the courts may use it as an indirect factor, as in the situations described above.