Tom Cruise’s recent admission that his ex–wife Katie Holmes filed for divorce to protect their daughter Suri from Scientology highlights what can happen when divorce and religion mix and go awry. While religion may not be a motivating factor in most people’s divorce, it can be an important part of a divorcing couple’s parenting discussion. That is particularly true when parents of different religions divorce.
From a legal standpoint, when parents of different religions divorce, unless they agree on their child’s future religious upbringing, the court is required to balance the best interest of the child with the parents’ right to freely exercise the religion of his or her choice. How the court strikes that balance depends upon the facts of the case, the law of the state in which that court is found, and the legal standard which the court uses to make its decision.
To complicate the situation even further, the right to make religious decisions for a child is one aspect of custody. That means that divorcing parents’ battles over a child’s religious upbringing often devolve into custody battles. But, in many states, custody isn’t the whole answer. Having sole custody may give you the right to determine what religion your child is raised in, but it may not give you the right to prevent your spouse from also taking your child to a different church or exposing your child to different religious beliefs when your child is with your spouse.
So, if you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse are at loggerheads over your child’s future religious upbringing, what should you do? Here are a couple of suggestions that will hopefully give you some guidance.
1. Deal with the Issue. If you and your spouse practice different religions, or if you are concerned that your spouse may not continue supporting your child’s religious practice after the divorce, then you need to front this issue with your spouse before you get divorced. Do not assume that you can get divorced first and deal with this issue afterwards. Religion is a highly charged emotional issue. The way to raise children is a highly charged emotional issue. Ignoring two such highly charged issues sets up the perfect situation for a huge explosion later.
2. Dig Deeply into the Details. Write down exactly what is important to you in your child’s religious upbringing. Is it important that your child attend religious school? Write that down. Is it important that your child go to religious services every week? Write that down. Is it important that your child go through a particular religious rite, like a bar or bat mitzvah or confirmation? Write that down. Write down everything that is important to you in your child’s religious upbringing, and everything that is not so important. If possible, have your spouse do the same thing.
3. Review and Compare Lists. Take a good look at your list, and decide what is really important to you. Look at your spouse’s list and see what is important to him or her. Even if you and your spouse conflict on which religion your child should be raised in, by breaking down your child’s religious upbringing into specific activities, you may find that there are areas where you and your spouse actually agree, or may be able to compromise.
4. Keep Your Eye on the Big Picture. Yes, religion is important. If your spouse is involved in some sort of cult-like religion, and you don’t want your children to be indoctrinated into it too, religion may be very important. But its equally important not to embroil your children in an ugly custody battle unless you truly have no choice. Think about potential compromises that you could live with – maybe if you gave your spouse something else that s/he wanted, s/he would be willing to give you what you wanted regarding religion.
5. Engage the Services of a Mediator. If you and your spouse can’t reach an agreement on your own, try using a mediator. Sometimes an independent third party can help you see things that you otherwise wouldn’t see. A good, trained mediator can often help you reach a compromise that you could not have reached on your own.
6. Do Whatever You Can to Avoid Trial. Going to trial is difficult and expensive enough in cases where children are not involved. Going to trial in a case where the custody and the religious training of children is involved is sheer torture. Plus, you never know what a judge is going to do. If religion truly is an important issue to you, then it is even more important to try to resolve that issue yourself.
7. Once You Have an Agreement, Write it Down in Detail. If religion is a bone of contention between you and your spouse, it is not enough to say in your parenting agreement that: “The parties agree that the child will be raised in the (fill in the blank) religion.” You need to be more specific. The agreement should say whether your child will attend religious school, who will pay for it, and who will take your child to and from the school sessions. The agreement should say who takes the child to religious services, and how often your child has to attend those services. While you don’t necessarily get bogged down in a thousand details, writing down the most important details can make all the difference between creating an agreement that endures, or dooming yourself to continue to fight over details that you should have ironed out in the first place.
To read more about the role of Scientology in the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorce, go to: