Dreidel or bust: Religious holidays and child custody

Can I stop my spouse from celebrating a holiday with my children that falls outside of my religion? 

The short answer is usually not, unless you can clearly show that the practice would pose physical or mental harm to your children. It is likely not harmful enough if exposure to different religious practices of two parents is confusing to a child or even causes some anxiety.

Florida courts tread carefully in this area because it requires a balance of the parental constitutional right to freedom of religion with the all-important best interests of children

Looking at an actual Florida case on this issue provides meaningful background information. 

Parental free exercise of religion v. child’s best interests 

The 2014 decision called Pierson v. Pierson in the District Court of Appeal in the First District (based in Tallahassee) concerned a dispute between a divorced Catholic mother and a father who became a Jehovah’s Witness after the couple separated. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s order that had given the mother the authority to make religious decisions for the children and had ordered the father to refrain from religious behavior in front of the children that conflicted with or disparaged Catholicism. 

The trial court had relied on testimony from the director of family ministries at the mother’s Catholic church, who was also a therapist, about one of the parties’ children. In the third grade Sunday School class, the child had reportedly made a series of statements about how Catholicism conflicted with the teachings of his father’s religion. The mother also testified that exposure to the father’s beliefs was confusing for their kids. 

The appeals court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children” based on the federal constitution, unless doing so is harmful to the children. Short of harm to the kids, the court cannot infringe on parental exercise of religion. 

Noting that the church employee who testified was not acting as the child’s therapist, the court decided that one incident about one of the three children did not establish the level of harmful threat to them that would justify restricting the father from exposing them to his religion. 

Religious behavior harmful to children 

The Pierson court cited a case from Nebraska as an example that went the other way. In LeDoux v. LeDoux, a case with eerily similar facts, the court allowed to stand an almost identical religious restriction on a father based on evidence that “exposure to disparate religions … posed an immediate and substantial threat to [the child’s] well-being.” Testimony from a certified clinical psychologist who had evaluated the child supported this finding.


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