Religion in both marriage and divorce is often a very delicate issue that can strain family relations and put family members at odds with each other. The strain can be even greater when the parents are each of a different religion. An interesting article from today’s Chicago Tribune by Manya A. Brachear called Religion Used as Weapon in Divorce focuses on the issue of a child’s religious upbringing post-divorce in light of increased interfaith marriages. Notable figures cited in the article include a percentage increase of interfaith marriages in the Jewish community from 17% to 47% from 1970 to 2000, and that interfaith households are 3 times more likely to end in divorce as those where both parents share the same faith.
In New Jersey, the primary caretaker of the child (the Parent of Primary Residence – defined as providing a residence for a child for more than 50% of overnights annually or, if sharing is equal, providing the residence for the child while the child is attending school) has the right to determine the child’s religious upbringing and education. The rationale is to allow the primary caretaker to decide the issue should there be a disagreement because that parent might know the child better than the other based on greater day-to-day exposure with the child. By contrast, the other parent (the Parent of Alternate Residence) may only choose to expose, but not educate the child in another religion. What does expose mean as compared to educate? Exposure generally includes taking a child to religious services during the non-primary caretaker’s parenting time, but not enrolling him or her in religious training or classes.
To that end, we litigated a case where the mother was the primary caretaker and raised the child in the Catholic religion. The father wanted the child to attend classes at his Mosque that were held simultaneously during adult services. Instead of describing it as a "class," however, he claimed that it was simply a separate room where all the boy children came together to play and were exposed to the Islamic religion. It was clear, however, that dad was trying to blur the lines between education and exposure to convince the court to allow the child to attend the classes. At the end of the day, the court correctly didn’t buy into his story.
There was also a case in New Jersey where the parties lived as Protestants during the marriage and raised the children that way. The settlement agreement made no mention of religion and, soon after the divorce, the wife converted to Orthodox Judaism and also converted the children over the husband’s objections. She even sought to modify the settlement agreement to allow them to remain with her on every Sabbath, as well as Jewish holidays, to impose certain dietary restrictions, and to enroll them in Hebrew Day School in lieu of their attendance at a public or private non-religious school. To show the strength of the primary caretaker’s religious decision making power, the court allowed the wife to raise the children in the Orthodox Jewish religion, prevented the father from enrolling the children in a Christian Sunday School or other formal religious educational program, and parenting time was modified to permit the children to spend major Jewish holidays (but not the Sabbath) with mom.
The article does a good job of highlighting the impact of religion on marriage and divorce and the way in which parents may use religion and the children as a way to impose their will over the other parent. The impact on the children, though, can never be understated in these types of situations and one would hope that differences could be worked out without litigation, especially on this most sensitive of issues.