Whose God Wins?

By Lithwick, Dahlia | Newsweek, March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Whose God Wins?


Lithwick, Dahlia, Newsweek


Byline: Dahlia Lithwick

For divorcing parents, it's not clear.

Joseph Reyes, an Afghanistan veteran and law student, converted to Judaism when he married Rebecca Shapiro in 2004. When they split up in 2008, Rebecca won primary custody of their daughter and Joseph got regular visitation. The Reyeses had allegedly agreed to raise their child Jewish, but Joseph, seeking to expose his 3-year-old to his Catholic faith, had her baptized last November. When Rebecca found out, she obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting Joseph from "exposing Ela Reyes to any other religion other than the Jewish religion during his visitation." But Joseph then took his daughter to Catholic mass on Jan. 17, with a local TV news crew in tow, prompting his ex-wife's lawyers to demand he be held in criminal contempt--with a maximum punishment of six months in prison. Can a court decide what religion your child will be?

Joseph Reyes says no, and once he decided to fight for his religious liberty in the courts of cable television, complicated legal issues were reduced to black and white. Headlines shrieked that a father faced jail time for exposing his daughter to God. The case sounds very constitutional. But instead of legal analysis we've mostly gotten typically nasty divorce-court spitballs. For instance, Joseph now says he wasn't really Jewish. He says he converted to Judaism "under duress" to mollify his in-laws, and that Rebecca is a bully. And he and his lawyer requested, and won, a new judge because the original judge, Edward Jordan, is Jewish. None of this has anything to do with the actual case, but it does get the blood pressure soaring.

Since Joseph doesn't dispute that he violated the restraining order, the only important issue here is whether a family-court judge can order divorcing spouses to raise a child in just one religion. In her court pleadings, Rebecca Reyes argues that she has sole custody of Ela, that the couple agreed to raise the child Jewish and sent her to a Jewish preschool, and that exposure to another religion would "confuse" her.

Joseph, in his pleadings, says Ela was not harmed by her baptism, and that under Illinois law a noncustodial parent can attend religious services with his or her child unless there is "proof of harm to the child" or it "interferes with the custodial parent's selection of the child's religion." Finally, Joseph says the restraining order violates his religious freedom. …

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