As a parent, you likely agonize over major decisions involving your child – where he should go to school, whether she needs that recommended medical procedure, where to live, who they should interact with, and most importantly, what values are essential to teach your child.
If you are religious, you likely draw upon your religious tradition and teachings in making most, if not all, of the decisions above. You are also likely to want your child to be instructed in your religious tradition. However, religious instruction can become more challenging if you have a parenting plan with a co-parent or ex-spouse.
The Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, recently discussed the role of religious instruction in parenting plans in the case Ball v. Ball. In that case, the parties had previously been married and had divorced by a consent decree in which neither party was represented by an attorney. They used a form for the Parenting Plan that was provided by the court, which included a section titled “Religious Education Arrangements.”
There were three boxes that could be checked, and the form indicated that the parties should “Choose one.” However, the parties checked two boxes which contained the following provisions:
- “Each parent may take the minor children to a church or place of worship of her or her choice during the time that the minor children is/are in his or her care.”
- “Both parents agree that the minor children may be instructed in the Christian faith.”
The second provision had a fill-in-the-blank, which the parties had filled in with the word “Christian.” At the time of the divorce, it seemed that the parties had agreed on what the Christian faith was. However, the father decided to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “LDS Church”) and wanted the children instructed in that religious tradition, which the mother objected to because she believed the LDS Church was not Christian and therefore violated the Parenting Plan contained in the consent decree.
After a trial in which the mother presented evidence that the LDS Church was not Christian, the trial court agreed and ruled in favor of the mother, preventing the father from taking the children to the LDS Church.
The Court reversed the trial court’s holdings on two grounds: first, that the section of the Parenting Plan on Religious Education Arrangements specifically permitted either parent to “take the children to ‘any place of worship,’ be it ‘Christian’ or ‘non-Christian,” and that the second provision where the parties agreed on the “Christian faith” did not limit the father’s ability to take the children to a place of worship that he chose.
Secondly, and more importantly, the Court found that the trial court’s ruling that the LDS Church was “not Christian” violated the First Amendment because it “dove into an ecclesiastical matter” that has “long been a matter of theological debate in the United States.” The Court explained that the trial court should not rule on such an issue because it gave the appearance that the government favors one religious view over another.
The Court stated that courts are empowered to enforce parenting plans that include religious education provisions but cautioned that “…parents who wish to address aspects of their children’s religious education in a parenting plan should take great care to ensure those provisions are as specific and detailed as possible.” This case provides a great example of how poorly-worded provisions in a parenting plan can cause significant issues for parents.
If you have questions about your parenting plan, need to create or modify a parenting plan, or just want some advice on the best way to protect your rights as a parent, the attorneys at Provident Law are well-versed in all aspects of family law, and will be happy to “share your burden” and help you navigate the difficulties of family court.
Anne Courchaine is an associate attorney with Provident Law, where she specializes in real estate, commercial litigation and family law. She can be reached at email@example.com or 480-388-3343.