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Can a court force you to pick a religion for your kids?

You and your spouse split up because you didn't agree on religion. This is quite common; statistics show that couples of differing faiths get divorced more often than average.

Originally, you though you could make it work. After the kids were born, your realized that was a pipe dream. It was one thing to go to services on your own, but you felt like your spouse was starting to impact the kids, hindering their spiritual development.

Picking sides

Now that you're divorced, you want to raise the kids in your religion. Your spouse not only doesn't agree, but he or she has actually taken up a different religion -- perhaps the one your spouse's parents originally raised him or her in as a child. Your spouse wants the kids to be brought up that way.

You think it's a farce. Your ex didn't care about religion during the marriage. Isn't this just a game to get back at you?

However, you're facing a very serious question: Can the court determine, as part of the child custody plan, what religion parents must observe? In this way, can a legal system that prides itself on separation of church and state actually force you to pick a specific religion for your kids?

A complex issue

Unfortunately, this is a complex issue, and past precedents haven't made things much clearer. Courts have ruled in both directions.

For instance, a man and a woman decided to raise their daughter in the Jewish faith; the man had converted from the Catholic faith when they got married. They then divorced, and the woman still wanted the daughter raised under Jewish instruction.

The woman had custody of the daughter and most control, but the father did have visitation rights. During one visitation period, he took the girl to church and had her baptized.

The mother felt outraged and the first court order actually sided with her. It created a temporary restraining order, saying that the man -- who now said he was Catholic again -- couldn't go to church with his daughter.

The man claimed this was unconstitutional, infringing on his rights to freedom of religion. The case dragged on for years, and the man was actually facing jail time for violating the order and going to church with the young girl.

However, when it was finally resolved, the second judge actually sided with the father, saying that the mother could raise the daughter in the Jewish faith if she so chose, but the father could bring the daughter to Catholic functions when he had her for those visitation periods. The court also gave the father time with his daughter on Easter and Christmas, the two major Christian holidays.

Religion and rights

As you can see, these cases are incredibly complex when two parents differ strongly about something so very important to them. It's critical for these parents to understand their rights and legal options.

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