Where angels fear to tread … religion in parental disputes

10 Jul 2012

I was in a coffee shop reading about the pending divorce between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes recently. My first thought was "They really should resolve this using the collaborative process, rather than having their private life, and that of their daughter, made public".

Divorce is grim for most couples and families: even more so if it is "fought out" in a gladiatorial ring of the press and social media. The collaborative process commits both and their lawyers to private meetings with a view to resolving disagreements by compromise.

My second thought was "I wonder how they will co-parent when there appears to be a real difference in opinion between them about the religion of one of them and what that religion says and does about a child’s upbringing?"

In the event, Mr Cruise and Ms Holmes have now agreed terms in private, short-circuiting a media frenzy. Good for them but in particular, hopefully good for their daughter.

Profound disagreements about a child’s religious upbringing are not confined to Hollywood stars and Scientology. There are many parents who find that their religious or philosophical beliefs become a bone of contention in relation to children when a separation happens. A split can act like a magnifying glass on differences in lifestyle and belief that were accepted when the couple were together. Sometimes, a religious dispute is a red herring – a "stick" used to beat the other parent in the anger and hurt of divorce, rather than a genuine concern about the religious issue itself.

Sometimes, there is a genuine anxiety about the influence of a religion or belief on a child as they grow and develop their own world view. What if one parent has a genuine belief that all children should be allowed to grow up wearing both traditionally male and female clothing, so as not to "fix" their gender identity too early? What if another believes that Native American religious practices are spiritually enlightening and should be practised by the whole family?

The UK courts do not judge or critique people’s beliefs. A human right to freedom of religion is enshrined in European and English law.

The court is interested in what is best for a child, under the Children Act 1989. An application for a Specific Issue Order can be made to the court if the parents cannot find a way to compromise. This would encompass a wide-ranging review of family history and habit, the extended familial ties and religious practices, but most importantly, how they affect that particular child. One thing is certain – an ongoing, raging dissonance between parents about religion as a child grows up can only damage them. That rather defeats the object of most religions.