Faith and Family Law

Howard Friedman’s excellent Religion Clause blog links to this decision of a Florida appeals court, confirming that the father should be given decision-making authority over the child’s medical care, in no small part because of the mother’s unusual religious beliefs:

Mother is a chiropractor and a proponent of holistic medicine.  A tenet of her religious beliefs is that God has provided the human body with an innate  immune  system  that  enables  the body  to heal  itself.  Mother believes  that  anything  introduced  into  the  body to prevent  disease  or treat  illness  is  against  the  will  of  God.  Specifically,  Mother  opposes vaccinations.  Accordingly,  pursuant  to  section  1003.22(5)(a),  Florida Statutes (2007), Mother obtained an exemption  for the minor child  from the immunization requirement to attend public school.

Conversely,  Father  desires  that  the  minor  child  receive  traditional medical  care,  including  well  baby  exams,  blood  draws,  urinalysis,  and vaccinations.  The court held  three hearings  to determine  responsibility for the  minor  child’s  health  care  where  multiple  experts  testified concerning the  effectiveness  of  vaccinations.  Mother  also  testified – 2 -regarding her religious beliefs, medical care of the minor child, and their parent-child relationship.


A  trial  court’s  determination as  to  which  parent  is  to  have  the ultimate authority over a minor child’s immunizations will be upheld if it is  supported  by competent,  substantial  evidence…


While courts have consistently overturned  restrictions on exposing a child to a parent’s religious beliefs and practices, they make an exception where there is “a clear, affirmative showing that these religious activities will be harmful  to  the child.”…


Following  conflicting expert  testimony1, the  court  determined  that  it was  in  the  best  interests  of  the minor  child to  award  Father  ultimate responsibility  to make decisions  regarding  the minor child’s health care and vaccinations. We  affirm  the trial  court’s  decision  because  it  was supported by competent, substantial evidence…

(The court also held that, considering all of the evidence, it was in the child’s best interests to be vaccinated – interesting, in light of recent revelations about  “vaccines cause autism” quackery.)

More at The Volokh Conspiracy.  Meanwhile, in Chicago, another interesting court battle regarding religion and family law is brewing:

A woman who is now married to a Hasidic Jew accuses her ex-husband of not following their custody agreement to support her religion.


Margolina accuses her ex-husband of not following their 2007 child custody agreement, in which she is to lead the religious directives. Debrigny said he’s fine with reasonably accommodating his son’s Jewish upbringing, but thinks his ex-wife is now too religiously extreme.


Testimony over the past two days has centered on a psychologist’s report paid for by Margolina that says the child’s best interests are served by growing up in a strict Jewish setting. She is now remarried to a Hasidic Jew and accuses Debrigny of undermining their religious beliefs.

“I was never told I couldn’t feed him bacon. There’s no restriction on what I can feed him,” said Debrigny.

Thursday’s court hearing on shared custody was about who is the better decision-making parent.

“She is absolutely entitled to her beliefs, but her religious beliefs almost require her to marginalize dad. And we are going to show that to the court,” said Brodsky.

In Nova Scotia, the best interests of the child is always the court’s primary concern in determining custody and access, and the parents’ religious practices and beliefs may be taken into consideration.  For example, in the fascinating case of Turple v. Grover, 2008 NSFC 20, a Family Court Judge ruled that a father’s unyielding, strict religious beliefs caused continuing conflict with the mother, his employers and his neighbours:

[72] The issues he addressed may well have been proper ones to be addressed within the context of his faith. When he sees something that is wrong, whether it be the permissive attitudes regarding oral sex, or the lack of attention to the plight of Britney Spears, he feels compelled to correct it. When he does so, people seem to respond badly.

[73] That applies as well to [his daughter] and his relationship with [the mother] and others. He told the court how on one occasion, [the child] had taken a proneposition and repeated the work “spank”. He was understandably concerned. He did not spank [the child] and was worried that she had seen something at the babysitter’s house. He was rebuffed when he called the babysitter, who like the pastor, seemed to haveinexplicably turned on him.  She “cursed him out” without ever addressing the issue.

[74] [The father] is simply not willing to sit back and “take it” when he seessomething wrong.  There appears to be a pattern of people failing to understand, orfailing to deal with, these issues in a way that meet [the father’s] standards and expectations. That applies to the public school system, employers, church leaders,doctors and [the mother].

[75] [The father] appears to have some difficulties in interacting with others, or others have a problem interacting with him. He sees his actions and his wishes as being based on principle. Departing from them is to depart from principle. Those who disagree are not so much people with different views, ideas or perceptions of theworld, but people who lack his certain grounding in principle. That may be a sign of a man of great depth of conviction. It may be laudable in some circumstances. As a method for dealing with a five year old child and her soon to be even more complicated interaction with the rest of the word, it leaves much to be desired.

Needless to say, the Judge could not rule that one parent’s beliefs were more valid than the other’s, but he did consider the way each parent’s faith affected his or her relationships with others in the community.

The mother was found to have a more conciliatory, open-minded attitude, and was more likely to consider the opinions of professionals and other family members – including the father – in making major decisions for the child.  Sole custody was awarded to the mother, though she was expected to engage in meaningful consultation with the father.  The child could be exposed to each parent’s religious beliefs, “provided that it does not in any way denigrate or devalue [the child’s] respect for herself, both of her parents or other people.”

3 thoughts on “Faith and Family Law

  1. Angie Schultz says:

    Are you going to make up your mind about your template? I hate this one; the block-quoted text is too light to read. What happened to the one with the lovely photograph? That worked just fine.

  2. Peter says:

    Debrigny said he’s fine with reasonably accommodating his son’s Jewish upbringing

    “I was never told I couldn’t feed him bacon. There’s no restriction on what I can feed him,” said Debrigny.


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