Child Custody and Religious Beliefs

Can a court remove children from a parent on the basis of the parent’s religious beliefs?

Did a trial court abuse its discretion in removing 2 children from the custody of their father because of his conservative religious beliefs? Yes, concluded a Pennsylvania state appeals court. A couple was divorced, and primary custody of their minor children was awarded to the father. Following the divorce, the mother began living with a new boyfriend (the two were not married), while the husband continued to live in the traditional family home and enrolled the children in a fundamentalist Christian school. Three years later, the mother asked the court to award primary custody of the two children to her. She based her request largely on the father's fundamentalist religious beliefs and his insistence that the children attend a church-operated school. The trial court agreed with the mother's request, and ordered the children removed from their father's home and transferred to their mother. The trial court found no "fault" with the father's raising of the children except for his religious beliefs. It observed:

On the surface this seems like an ideal adaptation under the circumstances but it is the degree to which the father has pursued "life in the Lord" that has deprived the children of social and educational opportunities and has presented them with a singleminded approach to life that is very restricted in view and allows for no spontaneity, artistic expression or individual development of rationale or logic or even just pursuit of ordinary curiosity. These children are being raised in a sterile world with very rigid precepts, with no allowance for difference of opinion, and no greater breadth than the doctrinaire limits of the religious beliefs.

The father appealed the court's decision, and a state appeals court ruled in favor of the father. The court found "no evidence" to support the trial court's decision. To the contrary, "the testimony indicates that [the father] has not pursued religion at the expense of neglecting his children …. He has played an active role in the children's educational, recreational and spiritual lives. [Further], the children are well mannered, affectionate toward each other, happy, responsible and well adjusted. This is not the case of a parent engulfing his life in religious pursuits and abandoning his children." The court also rejected the trial court's conclusion that the children's education at a fundamentalist Christian school was deficient. It noted that the school curriculum "covers the core educational subjects as well as a full course in Christian non-denominational religious education" and that "teachers are graduates of religious affiliated colleges." It concluded that "there is no evidence that would support the trial court's belief that the children have been deprived of social and educational opportunities and have been restricted in artistic expression or individual development of logic because of their attending a religious school." Further, there was "no basis for the trial court's belief that the childrens' horizons would be broadened by removing them from the 'sterile' environment of a religiously oriented school." Accordingly, the appeals court reversed the trial court's decision, and ordered the children to remain with their father. Stolarick v. Novak, 584 A.2d 1034 (Pa. Super. 1991).

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