Co-Parenting Issue: Religion

March 25th, 2010 - Erin Johnston

Parenting Child CustodyReligion education and identity is one of the most important issues to address in a parenting plan; as issues pertaining to religion are one of the most personal decisions a parent can make for a child.

In Chicago, a divisive custody battle is underway.

In this case the parents were married in 2004 and broke up after four years; they have one three year old daughter, Ela. The father, Joseph Reyes, is Roman Catholic, while the mother, Rebecca Reyes, is Jewish.

As so often happens when a couple breaks up, they dispute what agreements were previously made and motivation behind the agreements. In this case, the Reyes are in complete disagreement as to the decisions made regarding the religious upbringing of their daughter. Rebecca is raising their daughter Jewish, while Joseph is focusing on introducing Catholicism during his parenting time.

The father has gone as far as to have the daughter baptized in the Catholic church without the mother’s consent and violating a subsequent injunction against exposing his daughter to “any other religion other than the Jewish religion”. The mother is asking that the father be incarcerated for this violation of the injunction.

And at the middle of all of this is a 3 year old girl named Ela, who most likely has no understanding of the differences in her parents’ beliefs or why they are mad at one another.

At this point the parents and news stories tend to focus on what “courts allow”:

As ABCNews.com reports:

Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, said a parent who has visitation rights “usually has the right to expose the child to his religious beliefs, teach the child his religion, to take the child to religious services, unless there seems to be likely psychological or physical harm stemming from that exposure.”

Family court law expert Lynne Gold-Bikin said [Joseph] Reyes should have followed the court order, and said, “If this couple made an agreement about what religion to raise their child, then it’s an appropriate order.”

Regardless of how the Reyes custody battle (and this truly is a battle), the parents and Ela are going to have to live with the consequences, not just in terms of religious education and identity, but also the effect the battle has on the Reyes’ ability to co-parent.

Like all couples with young children, the Reyes are faced with the need, for Ela’s sake, to have a somewhat close and workable relationship until she reaches adulthood, and remain cordial and cooperative thereafter. It seems likely that this issue and, more importantly the resultant litigation, is going to have a permanent and negative affect on their ability to co-parent. Although the whole family will suffer, Ela will be the one to suffer most.

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Religion education and identity is an issue for many divorced or otherwise separated parents. Actively and clearly addressing the expectations and desires in terms of parenting is important for all parents, and especially so for those who parent from different homes.

Addressing religion directly in a mediated parenting plan or custody agreement can lessen the possibility of such a dispute. It allows parents to clearly address their expectations of one another as well as focusing on the interest and intent of the religious education and identity.

Focusing on each parent’s interests in parenting moves the discussion away from the emotion-based “You can’t make me! Oh, yes I can!” power and control dynamic that is so evident in litigated cases like this.

Divorce mediation, or any mediation involving a parenting plan, should proactively address these issues and stimulate thought and discussion regarding religion if the parents have not already thought about it. Ideally, the mediated result will be one both parents can support.

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