In this day and age, marriages involving people of different religious in no longer uncommon. In some of these families, the parties choose one religion to raise the children in. Sometimes even, one parent converts to the other’s religion. In other cases, the parties and the children observe both religions.
The question is what happens when the parties divorce? What happens if one parent converts to another religion post-divorce and wants the children to similarly convert. Though it seems as though this would be a complicated issue, in reality, the answer to the question is relatively easy.
Specifically, under NJ law, the primary caretaker has the right to determine the religious upbringing of the children in their custody and courts will not interfere in that parent’s decision regarding religious training for the children. The policy behind this judicial reluctance to interfere with the religious training of children is that it is in the best interests of the children that the custodial parent be allowed to determine their religious upbringing.
This principle was confirmed by the Appellate Division in a case where the parties were Protestant and raising the children in that religion before the divorce. After the divorce, the mother converted herself and the children to Orthodox Judaism. The mother, however, was not allowed to use the religion to interfere with the father’s time with the children. Moreover, the father could expose the children to his religion when they were with him but was not allowed to educate them in his religion.
Simply put, the custodial parent can determine the children’s religion – the non-custodial parent can expose, but not formally educate the children in that parent’s religion.
The Court’s have been clear that this has nothing to do with the preference of one religion over another. Rather, it is consistent with the law in general that gives custodial parents final say in decisions regarding children, even where there is joint legal custody, because that parent is presumed to know more about and be more in tune with what is in the children’s best interests. This principle has been applied to disputes ranging from religion to those involving elective medical procedures such as a nose job.
While this issue does not come before the Court all that often, as noted above, the law is well settled in this area and pretty straight forward.