When you divorce a religious zealot, what happens to your kids?

Religious zealots can be quite frightening and unpleasant, can’t they? It is not the simple fact of believing in God that makes a person a religious zealot (although, don’t tell that to the average atheist who feel just the mention of the word God makes a person a religious extremist). It is really a lot more than just that. Zealots are very scary form of extremists, in my view, because they go overboard and they are rigid, intense, and often, pecksniffian holier than thou hypocrites who have no right preaching to anybody in the first place and as my friend Marjorie once said, many of them are “Psalm-singing-sons-of-#@$%$# masquerading as holy-men.

I have absolutely no respect for “religious zealots.”

But. So. What if you were married to, and now are divorced from, a person who is a zealot and who has such strong religious beliefs that are different from yours that it poses a conflict in terms of the kids? Or maybe it’s not even that intense. What if the person is not even  necessarily in zealot zone. But that they are of a different religion and the person just has strong beliefs about their religion and they want to impose these religious beliefs on the kids, and you are the custodial parent and you want to bring up the kids with your religious beliefs and you don’t want the confusion and power struggle that comes from two parents with strong beliefs pulling the kid in all these directions. What do you do?

Well, if you live in New York, there are a couple of interesting cases to look at. And most of them defer to the custodial parent on this issue if there is no agreement between the parties. For the most part, the courts think it is in the child’s “best interest” to have one main religion. It doesn’t mean the other parent can’t take the child to his or her church, or to meetings or things like that. But it can’t be so intense that the child is now stressed out and confused and pulled in different directions, and is unsure which religious faith he or she belongs to. The noncustodial parent must respect their boundaries on this issue. The person who decides what religious upbringing the child will have is the custodial parent.

 Take the case where the mother was a “reform Jew” and the father was a “conservative Jew.” Let me see if I can find the citation….hold on…oh here it is. The case is Marjorie G. V. Stephen G., 156 Misc 2d 198, 592 NYS 2d 209 (Sup. Ct. NY County 1992). The mother in that case put the kids in a reform Jewish school. The father went to court to get her to put the kids in a Conservative Jewish school since he was conservative. He also wanted the kids to keep a traditional “Shabbat”.  (Not sure what that is) But. The court sided with the mother since she was the custodial parent, the children are not being harmed by going to a reform school, and the parties did not have a prior agreement.

In Romano v. Romano, 54 Misc. 2d 969, 283 NYS 2d 813 (Fam. Ct. Kings County, 1967) the mother turned from Catholicism to Jehovah’s Witness and this really frightened the father. He moved for custody since the kids were brought up Catholic and he had no idea what this move from her religion to a foreign religion by his wife was about. Whatever went on behind the closed door of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the dad was certain it would harm and damage his kids for life. The court was not so persuaded. They left custody with the mother. She had a right to freely practice her religion and so long as the children remained Catholic, the fact that the mother was now a Jehovah’s Witness was no big whoop to the court.

There are a ton of other cases on this issue for New Yorkers. Other states and around the world, I am sure, for the most part, there are common sense approaches to this issue as well and that custody will not be determined based on the religion one practices.

But what if a person is an atheist and the children and the other parent are Believers? What happens? I think the rule would be the same. It would not necessarily prevent the parent from getting custody. But if the kids were raised as Believers and the parent turned into an Atheist, the parent would have to show that he or she would continue to enroll the children in religious classes and would not harm the child or try to persuade the child to become an Atheist…although, this would be a big problem for me. There is zealotry and there is the other extreme–Atheism. I am for neither and I think either can be harmful to a child and if I were a judge, this would definitely be a deciding factor. I would not give custody of children who were raised as “believers” to a parent who was an “Atheist” or a “Zealot”. I don’t think it is in the best interest of the child.

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