Kids' Choice of Religion in Divorce Parental Divide

Article excerpt

Jeffrey Kendall left Catholicism in 1991 for a fire-and-brimstone church known for aggressive proselytizing. Then his wife, Barbara, left her own mild Jewish faith for a strong Orthodox Judaism. Sparks flew. The Boston-area couple filed for divorce.

That left the three kids. Mom was raising them as Jews, as the couple agreed before marriage. But dad wanted to expose them to his religious beliefs, too.

This week the highest state court in Massachusetts said no. Citing the children's "best interest," the Supreme Judicial Court barred Mr. Kendall from taking his children to church or discussing religion with them at all. His view that one must choose Jesus Christ or be "damned" could cause harm to the kids, the court ruled. Choice of religion, one of the most private and sacred of American rights, has long been worked out inside families when parents are of different faiths - as they increasing are in American society. But in divorce proceedings, state courts sometimes do intervene on behalf of the children's interest, as a matter of family law. Yet the boldness of the ruling, which gives Massachusetts courts and psychologists enormous power to choose between faiths in cases of divorce, has caused a national stir. Partly this is attributed to concern that children will be caught in a crossfire between two radically different faiths. Partly it is because the state court revised its former position - that exposing kids to diverse religious views is a healthy thing even when parents divorce. Legally, Tuesday's 6-to-0 ruling has no immediate national significance, although Mr. Kendall has all but said he plans an appeal to the US Supreme Court. "There has been no actual substantial harm to the children," insists Michael Greco, Mr. Kendall's lawyer. "Talking about heaven, hell, and damnation is what religions do. What business does the court have choosing a religion to prevent potential harm?" Underneath the case at hand is a concern among civil libertarians that when courts decide what is good for kids, minority religions that differ strongly from the mainstream are the losers. "In most cases, it is a mistake for the court to referee because courts are not very good psychologists and don't know how parental conflicts may affect children, who are sturdier than most people think," says Carl Schneider, a law professor at the University of Michigan. "But it is also an invitation for judges to do what the Constitution doesn't want them to do - discriminate on the basis of the content of religion." The issue is not going away any time soon. Studies show increasing numbers of Americans switching faiths or converting, trying new faiths or traditions, or dropping organized religion entirely. …