Splitsville: When Religious Differences End Up In Court

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Welcome to Splitsville. This weekly column will focus on parenting after a divorce, break-up or one-night stand that didn’t end like a Katherine Heigl movie.

Plenty of parents have had to navigate differing religious and cultural beliefs while raising children. My mom and dad had both a Catholic priest and a Brethren minister perform their wedding ceremony together. When it came time to introduce their children to religion, they both gave up their families’ denominations and settled on Presbyterian.

These choices are difficult enough for married and committed couples. The problems can get downright impossible for parents who have divorced.

A close friend of mine had been raising her daughter in the Catholic church. She was married in a Catholic cathedral, her daughter attended Catholic school, and her husband graduated from a Catholic school as well. They were a Catholic family. At least, up until the time that her husband decided to get a divorce and remarry. Suddenly, her ex was no longer Catholic.

The entire situation was extremely difficult for my friend, Sara*, and in her time of emotional distress, she turned even further to her religion for comfort. She got more involved in her church and her daughter’s school.

Sara and her ex agreed on joint custody and they managed to stay extremely civil through the entire ordeal. For a couple splitting after a decade a marriage, they seemed to be handling their situation well. That was, until Sara’s ex-husband asked that their daughter be taken out of Catholic school, the school that the little girl had attended for the first six years of her education.

Suddenly, Sara had been pushed too far. She had granted the divorce that she didn’t believe was right. She had held herself back from saying anything negative about the husband who left her without so much as a discussion or attempt to work things out. She had smiled politely at her ex’s new wife. “The idea of moving our daughter from her school was too much. I couldn’t believe he would even suggest it. That’s where I had to put my foot down.”

And that’s how Sara and her husband ended up back in family court, deciding just where their daughter would continue her educational career. “My ex thinks that because he gave up on the religion that didn’t approve of his behavior, our little girl should too. All of the sudden he calls it a horrible institution. And he says that he doesn’t believe she should attend a school that teaches her that one of her parents is going to hell because they practice a different denomination.” It’s true that the Catholic church believes that it is the one true way to the Lord. But I have to admit that having attended quite a few masses, I’ve never been threatened with hell for being a member of the Presbyterian church.

Obviously, I’m bias in this situation. I see my friend’s viewpoint of wanting to keep their daughter comfortable in her current school, especially when the child’s home life has changed so much recently. But I have to admit that I’m sad to see such an issue be dragged into the court systems. I feel like maybe mediators would be the best approach to get parents discussing the issue with one another and coming out with a decision that they can both agree on.

Religion is a touchy subject for plenty of families, and there are lots of couples out there that manage to incorporate different religions, teach different practices and embrace each parent’s unique backround. When the children are older, they can decide which belief system, if any, works best for them. But when it comes to parochial school, that’s something that parents have to be able to come together and decide. If they can’t, the court may come in and decide for them. That’s a chance I’m not sure I would want to take when it comes to my little one’s schooling.

(Photo: zimmytws/Shutterstock)