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Attorneys Vic Hill and Brad MacDonald

Should religion affect child custody orders?

In most states, family court judges may not use personal disapproval or a lack of understanding of a religion determine their ruling on a child custody dispute. However, what happens when a parent alleges that the other parent’s religious practices cause harm to the child in an attempt to gain custody of their child?

In Georgia, family courts use the “best interests of the child” standard when determining child custody and other matters concerning children. Because what is in a child’s best interest is largely subject to the judge’s interpretation, different counties and courtrooms often produce significantly different results in child custody cases. But one firm rule of judicial decisionmaking is that judges may not discriminate against religious beliefs or practices.

However, if a judge believes that one parent’s religion causes harm to the child, they may take that into account when determining child custody. This is what a father in Kansas attempted to argue in a recent custody case. The father, a Muslim, contended that the religious beliefs of his son’s mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, were detrimental to the couple’s child. In support of this claim, the father argued that the mother forced the son to go door-to-door with her, prohibited him from celebrating birthdays, and that she had stated that she would not allow the child to receive a blood transfusion if he should ever need medical attention.

While the judge expressed concern about the fact that the child would potentially not be able to receive a blood transfusion (the mother ultimately agreed to consult the father if the need for a blood transfusion should arise), he did not see the remainder of the claims as sufficient reason to remove the child from the mother’s care.

The father appealed, and a higher court affirmed the verdict, stating that the judge “properly distinguished between religious belief and religiously motivated conduct having an impact on the best interests of the child.”

Source: Knoxville News, “Questions of religion, child custody require delicate balance,” David L. Hudson Jr., August 10, 2011