Co-parenting after a divorce can be a challenge. This is especially so, if you and your former spouse have differing ideas about raising children. These differences may have been easier to manage or overlook while you were all living under one roof. This is most likely because you had more control. You saw the kids every day and you could rapidly intercede if you discovered something being done in a manner counter to what you prefer.
Now that the divorce is final and you are living in two separate residences, you may experience angst as a result of your ex-spouse’s parenting style. Maybe you are bothered by what she feeds them, what he permits them to watch on television, what she lets them wear, or how he allows them to cut their hair.
Or, maybe it’s the religion your co-parent follows. And now to add to your concerns, he has the children participating in religious activities with him. What do you do if you don’t agree with this parenting decision? Steinman v. Steinman, a recent case decided on May 11, 2016 by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, helps us understand this issue more clearly.
In this case, Mom was having the children educated in Orthodox Judaism. Meanwhile, Dad facilitated their participation in Reform Judaism, which is what they practiced as a family while the marriage was intact. There was a hearing on a motion for contempt of the mother for enrolling the children in an after-school care program at the Chabad (the place where the children were learning about Orthodox Judaism). The trial court then made a decision that was contrary to our already-established law in Florida regarding this issue.
While the trial court did not find the mother in contempt for enrolling the children in an after-school program, it did find her in contempt for “unilaterally changing the religion of the minor children.” The court further ordered that the children be raised under Reform Judaism unless the mother and father were able to come to another agreement. The trial court explained that “Former Wife/Mother is free to practice any religious beliefs she wishes, but cannot unilaterally modify the children’s beliefs and practices or have the children follow her beliefs and practices when they are residing with her.”
This decision flies in the face of, first and foremost, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children.” (See Wisconsin V. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205). Our case law in Florida is clear in that a court order that favors the religion of one parent over another, absent a showing of harm to the child, infringes on the First Amendment rights of the parent whose religion has not been favored. (See Mesa v. Mesa, 652 So. 2d 456).
So, as you can imagine the appellate court reversed the trial court decision and the mother was allowed to educate the children in the religion of her choosing.
Even in cases where there is a great disparity between religious beliefs and there is some evidence of one of the children being confused and unsettled by the conflicting information received through religious education, the courts still give paramount importance to the religious freedom of the parents. Such was the scenario in Pierson v. Pierson, 143 So. 3d 1201, a First District Court of Appeal case decided in 2014. In Pierson, the children had been raised in the mother’s Catholic faith. During the divorce proceedings the father adopted the Jehovah’s Witness faith and began to educate the children in these teachings.
During the trial, evidence was presented that the oldest son on one occasion came to Catholic Sunday School class espousing the tenants of the Jehovah’s Witness faith which happened to be at direct odds with what was being taught and practiced at the Catholic church. The mother expressed concern that the children were being confused by the vastly different doctrines. The trial court shared her concern noting the “beginnings of a substantial emotional problem” in the oldest son as a result of the competing doctrines. And therefore, the court decided to give shared parental responsibility to the mother and father with “ultimate religious decision-making authority” to the mother. The court further stated that the father was prohibited “from doing anything in front of the children or around the children that disparages or conflicts with the Catholic religion.”
This order was found to conflict with our established U.S. Supreme Court and Florida case law. The evidence of harm caused by competing religions was based on one story in which one of the three children was involved. No psychologist spoke directly to the effected child and no formal psychological evaluation had been performed. This evidence did not rise to the level of the demonstrated harm required to prohibit the father from exposing his children to his chosen faith. The trial court order regarding religion was therefore reversed.
And now to add to our growing body of Florida case law, we have Koch v. Koch decided by the First District Court of Appeal on September 28, 2016. In this case, the trial court prohibited the father’s discussion of “any religious matters during visitation with his children.” Among other parts of the order, he appealed this section as well.
We distinguish this case from the other cases previously discussed by the fact that the mother presented evidence from three professionals with a long-time history of counseling experience with the family. The professionals each testified that the father’s “admonishments, threats of damnation, and demonization of the children’s mother caused each of the three children anxiety and emotional distress severe enough to qualify as abuse.” The father freely admitted to one of the psychologists that he “used Biblical verses as a ‘rod’ to justify his severe punishments of the children and to control their behavior.”
Therefore, the trial court found that the testimony “constituted a clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue [would] be harmful to the child[ren].” As per Pierson and the cases cited therein, the court’s order prohibiting the father from discussing any “religious matters” during his timesharing was not an abuse of discretion and did not violate the father’s rights. It was thus affirmed by the First District Court of Appeal.
As you can glean from this case law, co-parenting issues regarding religion can be complicated matters. If you find yourself in a similar situation, we welcome the opportunity to consult with you about your options. We would be honored to help. Please call Mara Law, P.A. at 386.672.8081 to schedule your consultation.