Appeals Court Sides With South Florida Mom in Religious Upbringing Dispute

In any case involving the divorce of two parents, one of the most important issues the parents will have to resolve will pertain to the religious upbringing of the child. Hopefully, the parents will have similar views or backgrounds regarding religion or alternatively will be able to work cooperatively in the best interest of their child to put a plan into place regarding the religious training of the child. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, as a recent case involving a Jewish family from Palm Beach County showed. As the Fourth District Court of Appeal‘s ruling demonstrated, courts will generally give a parent significant latitude in making these decisions as long as the decisions he or she makes are not proven to be harmful to the child.

The couple in this case, W.S. (father) and E.S. (mother), were the parents of two children and divorced in 2011. The parents reached a marital settlement agreement that gave both of them shared parental responsibility. All major decisions about the children, including religious upbringing, were to be made collectively by the parents whenever that was possible. Problems emerged three years later when, according to the father, the mother began, with no input from the father, immersing the children in Orthodox Judaism, including enrollment in an Orthodox after-school program and introduction of Orthodox teachings and customs at home. The children had, according to the father, been raised only under Reform Judaism prior to that time.

Based on these actions, the father sought an order that would hold the mother in contempt of court for failing to honor the settlement agreement by failing to consult the father about the children’s religious upbringing. The children had, during the parents’ marriage, been raised in a Reform Jewish environment, and the belated introduction of Orthodox teaching confused them, the father contended. The mother, at the hearing, told the court that Orthodox Judaism was not new to the children and that they had attended Orthodox temple services during the parents’ marriage.

At the hearing’s conclusion, the trial court held the mother in contempt, ruling that she had changed the children’s religion unilaterally without properly involving the father in that decision-making process. Unless the parents reached another agreement regarding the children, the children were to be raised under Reform Judaism.

The mother appealed, arguing, through her attorneys, that there was no proof that the children were harmed by her religion and that, in the absence of proof that her Orthodox practices were a detriment to the children, the trial court’s ruling unconstitutionally restricted her freedom of religion. The appeals court sided with the mother, largely for the reasons she stated. The law in Florida regarding the religious upbringing of children is fairly clear. In a 1995 case, Mesa v. Mesa, the court stated that “courts have consistently overturned restrictions preventing one parent from exposing a child to his or her religious beliefs and practices unless there is an affirmative showing that the religious activity is harmful to the child.”

In this case, the father did not show that the mother’s Orthodox practices were harming the children. The father, who did not retain an attorney for the appeal, made only a general claim regarding the children’s supposed “confusion” regarding the difference between the strict practices (including the dietary differences involved in keeping Kosher) required in one home but not the other, but he did not establish that this confusion rose to a level that it was actually harming the children. Without that proof, a ruling prohibiting the mother from raising the couple’s children under the auspices of Orthodox Judaism was improper.

In a perfect world, divorced parents work collaboratively for benefit of their children in all decisions, especially the major ones. These decisions occur solely between the parents and without the need for court involvement. Unfortunately, ours is not a perfect world. When your child custody and parenting issues require legal involvement, talk to the diligent South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our attorneys have the knowledge, experience, and sensitivity regarding these issues necessary to work toward a successful result for you and your children. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

South Florida Mother Faces Arrest for Blocking Son’s Circumcision in Violation of Parenting Agreement, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 18, 2015

Religion Used As A Parenting Plan Weapon During Divorce in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 13, 2010

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