Recently, a Chicago father has been in the news for violating a custody order by taking his daughter to a Catholic mass. Specifically, Father converted to Judaism after marrying Mother, and allegedly agreed to raise their daughter Jewish. However, they soon separated, and Father began practicing Catholicism again and even had their daughter baptized Catholic. Thereafter, in the midst of a bitter custody battle, the court issued an order that Father could not expose his daughter to any religion other than Judaism. Father allegedly violated that order by taking his daughter to a Catholic mass and Mother filed a contempt motion; the issue is still pending.
In California, when adjudicating custody, courts cannot base a custody or visitation decision on one parent’s religious practices without a clear showing that the religious practices are detrimental to the child. Generally speaking, each parent is entitled to religious freedom with regard to his or her child and may decide what he or she believes is in the child’s best interests. In fact, addressing religious issues during a custody/visitation dispute raises serious First Amendment concerns regarding the freedom of religion, so most courts attempt to steer clear of these issues. Courts will only intervene when the parent seeking to limit the other from exposing or practicing another religion demonstrates that the belief or practice actually presents a substantial threat of harm to the child.