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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Determining the Religious Background of a Child after a Divorce

When parents of different religious backgrounds divorce, it can lead to a bitter struggle over the religious identity of the children. Often, when parents cannot resolve this issue themselves, the court will step in and settle the dispute.

An unusual case was just settled in Chicago. The court found the father, Joseph Reyes, in contempt for exposing his daughter to Christianity after he violated a court order preventing him from exposing her to any religion other than Judaism. The reason the case is so unusual is that the divorce has not been finalized.

Reyes converted to Judaism after his daughter was born, but he returned to Catholicism after separating from his wife, Rebecca. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, citing freedom of religion as his defense.

Rebecca received a temporary restraining order after learning that Reyes had their daughter baptized last November. She claims that while they were a couple, Joseph had agreed to raise their daughter exclusively in the Jewish faith. Rebecca's lawyers filed the contempt charges with the court after Joseph recently took their daughter to Holy Name Cathedral, an action in clear violation of the restraining order.

It is not common for a judge to grant a restraining order prohibiting a parent from exposing the child to other religions before the divorce action is finalized and child custody is granted to one parent. Once the divorce is finalized and custody is established, it is common for the court to order that the child be raised in the religion of the custodial parent, especially where there is creditable evidence presented during the trial that the parents had agreed during the marriage to raise the children in one particular religion.

That would have been easy in this case, because the father had converted to Judaism during the marriage, and that is strong evidence that the parties intended to raise their children Jewish. Furthermore, Reyes never renounced Judaism to return to the Catholic faith until after separating from his wife.

It is possible that the conduct that triggered the court's injunction was the father attempting to have the child baptized, an action completely inconsistent with raising her Jewish. In this case, the court, sensing the stubbornness on the part of the father, wanted to stop these actions at once. Had it not been for the blatant conduct on the part of the father, it is unlikely the court would have granted the injunction prior to the finalization of the divorce.

If the parents had been willing to exercise a little civility and good faith toward one another, the proper outcome would have resulted in the child being raised and educated in the Jewish faith, since that was the obvious intent of the parents before they separated. The father would then have the right to expose their daughter to Christianity during his parenting time, explaining that this was his background. However, he would not be able to baptize her or teach her that she is a Christian.

The court has the responsibility of protecting children from warring parents who act inappropriately and can do harm to the child, whether that is their intention or not. This is clearly an issue that should have been settled by the parents and not left up to the determination of the court. Unfortunately, the selfishness of the parents forced the court to get involved.

Reyes' claim of freedom of religion is not a valid defense of his actions. He has the freedom to practice the religion of his choice; however, he does not have the freedom to force this choice on a helpless child, especially when this choice is in contradiction of the agreement the parents made while they were still a couple. In this case, the facts clearly support the mother's argument, and while the court's decision was somewhat unusual, they appeared to make the right call.

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