Divorced or never married parents can disagree on lots of things. But few things cause major conflict more than fundamental decisions about their children. For people who consider themselves a member of a religion, the stakes are high. Many parents who devoutly follow a specific faith feel that the souls or salvation of their children depend on particular behavior or adherence to faith traditions. So what happens when parents don’t agree on religion?
The rules about making religious and other decisions for the child of formerly married parents comes from a court order or settlement agreement entered by the parents at the time of divorce. For never married parents who have established the legal paternity of the child, the court order establishing paternity usually controls. Making decisions about issues like health, education and religion is a concept called “legal custody”. Indiana law recognizes two main types of legal custody. Sole legal custody involves one parent making the decisions about health, education and religion for the child and informing the other parent what decision was made. Joint legal custody involves both parents discussing health, education and religious decisions and agreeing on the right choice before either parent takes action. So, for parents who disagree about religion, the first question is: what kind of legal custody applies to decisions for this child?
If joint legal custody applies, the parents are required to discuss and agree before implementing any of the available decisions. This means for religious decisions, one parent acting alone cannot change the religion or denomination of the child or complete any sacrament or ritual without agreement by the other party. For example, one parent cannot have the child baptized without the agreement of the other parent.
If the parents are of different religions, these choices are certainly more difficult. It becomes important that parents carefully write the rules for making these decisions when negotiating their settlement agreements. For example, the parents could agree that the child will be exposed to both religions as a young person and that the child will be permitted to choose one religion over the other when he or she reaches a certain age. (Keeping in mind the child might choose neither faith).
Conflict sometimes arises from the fact that one parent is a member of a religion and the other is not. This often presents itself as a dispute on how a child’s time will be spent on days during the week which are important to a specific faith. As an example, if one parent typically attends a religious service on Sunday morning and the other prefers to spend Sunday morning at home making waffles, the parent who attends worship services and desires the child to adhere to that faith tradition may feel that he or she can take the child to worship services weekly regardless of which parent is exercising parenting time on the particular weekend. The reality is that each parent has the right to structure his or her parenting time activities as he or she sees fit. The parent desiring the child’s participation in worship services will be able to ensure the child’s attendance during that parent’s parenting time, but will not be able to do so during the other parent’s time.
If parents disagree about a religious decision and are unable to make that important decision by agreement, those parents have some options. The parents can attend mediation to talk through their disagreement with a trained neutral person who can help bridge the difference. Parents can also present both sides of the issue to an arbitrator to receive a quick binding decision. Finally, parents can ask a judge to decide the issue.