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Religious Considerations in Florida Child Custody Determinations

In Florida, as elsewhere, determinations of child custody are made based on what is in "the best interests of the child." When awarding custody to one parent or another after a divorce, a judge generally has a great deal of discretion in making this determination. And the court will analyze any and all factors that might affect the child's "best interests," including—where relevant—religion.

Alternating Holidays

One common illustration of judges considering religion in child custody determinations is the need to schedule alternating holiday celebrations.

For example, in the recent case of Arcot v. Balaraman, a Florida appeals court reversed the child custody determination of a lower court. In that case, all parties—husband, wife, and child—were practicing Hindus. But the trial court had neglected to establish a schedule that would have required the child to spend Hindu holidays alternatingly with father and mother. The appeals court agreed and stated that, assuming such a schedule could minimize the impact on schooling, it needed to be established.

Religious Differences Between the Parents

When parents and child practice the same religion, to the same degree, religious considerations are not terribly difficult to include in child custody awards. However, when there are religious differences among family members, controversies can arise.

Exemplary of these sorts of conflicts was the 1995 case of Abbo v. Briskin. In the Abbo case, the trial court was faced with a religiously diverse family. The mother, who had been married with children before, was a practicing Roman Catholic. According to the judge, "she had a great spiritual attachment" Catholicism.

However, in the face of her reservations, she undertook to convert to Judaism prior to her second marriage, to satisfy the wishes of her new husband. A year after the marriage, the couple had a daughter and, subsequent to that, the wife returned to Catholicism.

Eventually, when the daughter was four years old, the couple divorced—placing the daughter's religion at the center of their dispute. Although the mother was awarded custody (and was now, again, a practicing Roman Catholic), the trial court insisted that the girl be raised Jewish. The trial judge dictated that the mother "should not interfere in the development of the child's Jewish religious training and upbringing, nor should she actively influence the religious training of the child in any other direction, other than the Jewish faith."

The mother appealed this case and the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's decision. It laid out the long history of religious freedom in this country, focusing on the hesitation of government and the courts to force religious practices on citizens. While a court can give custody of a child to one parent over another, and use religion as one factor in that determination, it cannot be asked to require one parent to conform to a certain religious tradition.

"As with married parents who share diverse religious beliefs," the court of appeal wrote, "the question of a child's religion must be left to the parents even if they clash. A child's religion is no proper business of judges."

Legal Advice for Divorce

If you are seeking a divorce or have any other family law-related legal needs—please reach out to our legal professionals at Hager & Schwartz, P.A. in Miami today.

Categories: Child Custody, Family Law