Raising children in a mixed faith environment, or where one parent practices a religion and the other does not, can be a challenge at the best of times. It’s something that requires mutual respect, and a willingness to both communicate and compromise. It’s to be hoped that it is something that would be discussed prior to marriage and family. Nevertheless, sometimes people change their minds about religion, move from an orthodox to heterodox position (or vice versa), lose faith, or become a convert, and these things require negotiation.
I recently stumbled upon this blog post, looking at family law in religious conflicts between separated/divorced parents and the consequences for the child involved. Whilst the religion in question in this particular case is Jehovah’s Witness, observations included in the interim court decision could also apply LDS faith.
Briefly, there is dispute between the parents regarding the religious upbringing of the child, with the father being concerned that the mother is indoctrinating the child into the Jehovah’s Witness faith. This dispute is having a detrimental affect on the well-being of the child, and as a result an application to place the child in foster care is going through the courts, because (see point 8):
“There was ample evidence upon which the judge was entitled to conclude that the child was suffering harm as a result of the ongoing hostility between the parents and because his mother had immersed him in her religious beliefs and practices.
“The evidence in the case supported a finding that it was emotionally harmful for this 7 year old child to be immersed in the mother’s religious beliefs to the extent that the evidence plainly established was the case.”
The mother, with whom the child resided for part of the time, had previously been required to make the following undertakings to the court (see point 13):
“(i) Not to take N to the Kingdom Hall or any other religious meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
(ii) Not to talk to N about religion or about the Jehovah’s Witness organisation or about her faith.
(iii) Not to allow N to go on the jw.org website or to provide him with any religious DVDs.
(iv) If N tries to discuss religious matters with her, to tell him that the court has indicated that it would prefer she did not discuss such matters with N for the time being.”
The court had held that amongst other things (see 14):
“N has suffered emotional harm due to his immersion by his mother in her religious beliefs and practices, with the intention of alienating him from his father.”
A point the mother did not accept (see 15):
“[It] is not accepted that N has been harmed by immersion in the religion of the Respondent Mother. She does not accept that she has introduced N to her religion with the intention of alienating N from his father. Notwithstanding His Honour [the judge] found that to be the case, but the Mother does not accept that.”
The professionals involved were unable to agree on a course of action. In a recent assessment (see 32):
“[The psychologist] remains concerned about the adverse impact upon N of the mother’s religious views. He remains of the opinion that N is too young to be capable of rational philosophical argument concerning faith issues. Rather, it is the case that N has taken on board what he has been told. If it were the case that N had simply been involved in the mother’s religious practices then that may not have been a problem. However, the problem is that N has been told that what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe ‘is the only way’. In his opinion it is likely that N is still being positively instructed in his mother’s religious beliefs.”
Not a view shared by the social worker (see 43):
“The social worker considers that the mother’s undertakings to the court are themselves having an adverse impact on N. Not being allowed to pray with his mother is a difficulty because he has done it in the past and ‘it is part of his identity, part of who he is’. N thinks that Jehovah ‘will be mad’ with him for not praying. She said that the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs are ‘intrinsically part of who he is’. In her opinion ‘we need to give certain things a go’, by which I took her to mean that there ought to be some relaxation in the scope of the mother’s undertakings.”
The judge seems to have sided with the psychologist, but recognised that without the backing of the local authority, represented primarily by the social worker, he can make an interim care order (and did so), recognised that in practice he would be unable to enforce the interim order before the final hearing later in the year (see 95-100).
I would recommend reading the full document.
Clearly it would be better if theses disputes can be resolved without recourse to the courts.
In the LDS church I know of one part-member family where the mother was able to argue that only by attending church and learning about the religion would the child be able to make an informed choice as an adult. And of a case following divorce where, this time, the it was the mother who took exception to the father’s religious belief and practices during court hearings about access to a child residing with the mother.
- How might these cases be best resolved?
- Do you think the father’s fears of indoctrination are justified?
- Do you think it fair to ask the mother not to discuss her religious practices with her child?
- What do you make of the difference of opinion between the psychologist and the social worker?