Religion Is A Worry For Kids In Divorce

Religion is one of five major matters that child custody law addresses.

by Honorable Anne Kass. Ann Kass is a District Judge in the Second Judicial District State of New Mexico

I recently met with a group of children whose parents are divorced. One of the things they asked me about was religion. A number of them were experiencing problems:

  • one whose parents had not practiced any religion during the marriage said that after the divorce, each parent had selected a different religion, and each was critical of the other's choice.
  • one whose father was Catholic and whose mother was Jewish said his parents had quarreled about religion during the marriage. After the divorce, the quarrels got worse.
  • two whose parents had shared a common religion during the marriage. Upon divorce, one of the parents had changed to a different religion and wanted the children to change as well.

I explained the rules the court follows about religion in divorce cases.

Religion is one of five major matters that child custody law addresses. There are five decisions that married-parents make, that the law says neither divorced-parent may unilaterally change--residence, religion, health care, education and recreation.

Here's the way it works:

First, the "status-quo" is determined. What religion did the parents choose for the children when they were married and making joint decisions? That religion is the children's "status-quo-religion," and neither parent may change it unless both parents agree or the court allows it.

If, during the marriage, the parents chose no specific religion for the children, then the "status-quo-religion for the children is "no specific religion," and neither parent may then enroll the children in any specific denomination without the other parent's agreement.

If one parent changes religion after the divorce, and it is relatively common for a change in religion to accompany a divorce, that is fine, for each of the parents. But, when a divorced parent attempts to impose his or her change of faith on the children, trouble erupts. To avoid that trouble, the law in New Mexico, recognizing that religion is a major issue, prohibits one parent changing the children's religion.

The law, specifically the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, allows each parent to share his or her religious beliefs and practices with the children, including newly adopted beliefs. The prohibition is limited to making a formal change in religious denomination. It is hoped, of course, that each parent will respect the religion of the other parent and the status-quo-religion of the children. Parents are asked not to propagandize for or against a religion different from the one they chose together.

The children agreed that if their parents would follow these basic rules, their (the children's) lives would be less confusing and far more peaceful.

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