I recently fielded a phone call from a disgruntled father who wanted to complain about his child’s mother’s failure to adhere to following a religious faith. He claimed that her dating another man violated the custody order’s requirement that the child be brought up Catholic.
While the child goes to Catholic school and regularly attends church, this father seemed to believe that her decision to date someone (he is remarried) and introduce that individual into their son’s life violated a tenant of the Church. Interestingly (or ironically), he does not seem to find his divorcing of the child’s mother and remarriage to be problematic, despite the fact that Catholicism takes a dim view of divorce.
Religion in custody cases is a legal custody issue. What’s more, it is an issue in which the parties DO NOT need to reach an agreement on how the child is raised. Basically, each parent gets to bring up the child in their particular religious faith. We talked about religious decisions previously, and it is worth taking the time to examine Pennsylvania’s case law on the topic.
Pennsylvania case law has evolved over the years to consider whether the introduction of a religious faith would pose a grave threat of harm to the child. The facts of a few Superior Court and Supreme Court of Pennsylvania cases shed light on how the Court views religious issues as a consideration, but with a considerable amount of latitude for the parties’ Constitutional rights to free speech and religion. For instance, the courts have upheld a parent’s right to espouse plural marriages – though such marriages are against the law – so long as the child is not subject to a plural marriage (Shepp v. Shepp, 821 A.2d 635 (Super. 2003); having a child baptized in one faith over another (Hicks v. Hicks, 868 A.2d 1245 (Super. 2005) does not violate legal custody rights, and; deciding that a Father’s practice of Neo-paganism was not detrimental to the development of the child (Luminella v. Marcocci, 814 A.2d 711 (Super. 2002) also helped shape Pennsylvania’s consideration of religion in custody cases.
The net effect of these cases seems to be that religion will be under the purview of the parties, not the Courts and that so long as it does not place the child at harm or subjects them to participating in illegal activities, then the custodial party’s religious choices are as valid as the other’s.