I’ve spoken before about religious issues in divorces. They can be contentious. What about religious issues regarding children in divorces (or when a child is born to unwed parents)? Parents from different religions or even different religious traditions within the same religion often agree upon how the children will be raised. But what happens when they do or can not?
That is the topic of a recent case out of Connecticut. Adam and Lori Breiner divorced in 2017. In the divorce agreement, they were to raise their now teenage children in the “Orthodox Jewish tradition.” The parents left that phrase undefined. As in any religion, there are different levels of adherence even within various denominations.
Consequently, the parents disagreed about what exactly that meant. (After all, that’s how these disputes get to court.) The father did not think the mother was following Jewish orthodoxy, as the mother had her new boyfriend sharing the former marital bedroom with her while the children were present.
Mother argued that “she has continued to raise the minor children in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, but that the defendant’s attitude has been rigid and fails to recognize that the children have established their own religious identities. Furthermore, the defendant is imposing his level of religious observance upon the plaintiff and the children, causing great anxiety and strain for the children. Lastly, the plaintiff argues that the defendant seeks to control both the plaintiff and the minor children, alleging that the defendant has undermined their religious observance to their great distress.” (from the court decision)
The father filed a petition with the court to enforce the divorce agreement. This puts the court in a tough position. Freedom of religion extends from the First Amendment of the US Constitution and similar clauses in most, if not all, State Constitutions through the Establishment Clause (the government cannot establish or enforce a religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (people can freely exercise their religions without interference from the government). So the court punted by saying that while the parties agreed to raise their children Orthodox Jewish, the court could not rule what Orthodox Judaism is or what is meant by the term.
While this is an unpublished Connecticut case, New Jersey law is largely similar. The parents should agree on how the children will be raised from a religious perspective. Otherwise, the court may look into how the child(ren) was raised during the marriage or relationship, or what the parties had discussed before the birth of the child(ren). Or they may not rule at all leading to two different religions or religious interpretations done to the child(ren). Ask if that’s the best thing for the child(ren).
The religious upbringing of the child(ren) is a discussion topic in mediation. Please contact me about mediation (or learning more).