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Who has the right to choose their child’s religion?

February 5, 2021 Speech Box

The press – well, the Daily Mail at least – has been following Katie Holmes and her 14 year old daughter Suri Cruise through New York, slightly obsessed that the teenager is almost as tall as her mum now, and certainly taller than her father, Tom Cruise. You may remember the celebrity couple separated in 2012 and a contributory factor was reported as being Katie wanting a divorce because she didn’t want Suri to continue to adopt the Scientology faith.

I wrote a blog then about the difficulties of agreeing who should decide what religious upbringing a child should have if the parents(together or separated) were unable to agree, writes Louise Barretto, Head of our Family team.

Tom Cruise recently confirmed that Suri is no longer a practising member of Scientology, which a HuffPost article calls “a huge admission since anyone who leaves the faith is considered a ‘Suppressive Person’ and is cut off from all members of the church, including their immediate family. This might explain why Tom Cruise – apparently – has not seen Suri for six years.

However complex the lives of US Hollywood celebrities might be, here in Britain in 2021 the question I posed in 2012 is just as pertinent for thousands of families.

Statistics from the Office of National Statistics published in 2019 showed that the number of non-religious people in Britain has increased by 46% since 2011 (up to a total of 39% of the population), with over 8 million more people declaring that they do not belong to any religious group. As you can see, a couple where one member is a regular observer of a religion and the other is not, may well have diverging views on how their children should be brought up. Especially when they separate. It’s much more common than you might think.

A judge requested to rule in a case where there is a dispute between the parents who both have Parental Responsibility for a child will apply the Welfare Checklist set out in the Children’s Act to the facts of each case. The paramount consideration of the court is the welfare of the child concerned. The court will usually ask a social worker to provide a recommendation which will in many cases be persuasive.

In all cases I would advise the parents to try absolutely every reasonable way of resolving this without resorting to our family courts, which will be expensive, emotional, take a long time and the parents are not in control of the outcome.

If one parent wishes to change their child’s religion and the second parent opposes this, the second parent can apply for a Prohibitive Steps Order that can be applied for under which the court will make a decision according to what it considers is in the best interests of the child.

If the parents find it difficult to talk about it together without discussions becoming heated, then they should consider family mediation with a solicitor mediator who will facilitate discussions between the parents and help them to reach a solution that is the best for the child and acceptable to them both. The mediator can also suggest family counsellors or other profession services that may be able to improve communication for the parents, which will certainly be a positive benefit for the child as he or she grows up.

It is often said that it is not the separation that hurts the child, but rather the way in which the separation is handled that is the key, so if this is correct, then we should try our very best, as solicitors and parents, to ensure that arrangements are made in a way that affords everyone respect and consideration.

If parents are still in dispute over a child’s religious upbringing, a parent can apply to the court to decide on the matter using a Specific Issue Order. The court will take into account the details of the case – but will always seek to base the decision on what is in the  child’s best interests.

The case of Re N (a child: religion: Jehovah’s Witness)

This was a case in which the father of the child applied to restrict the extent to which the child’s mother involved the child in the practice of her religion as a Jehovah’s Witness.

The case sets out the principles that a Court will apply in matters relating to religious upbringing:

  1. Parental Responsibility is joint and equal and neither parent has an overriding right to choose a child’s religious upbringing.
  2. In cases where the parents follow different religions, but both religions are socially acceptable, the child should have the opportunity to learn about both religions.
  3. Where the practice of a particular religion involves a lifestyle which is in conflict with the lifestyle of the other parent and this conflict may have an impact on the child’s welfare then the Court will look at restricting the child’s involvement in those practices.
  4. Any restriction imposed by the Court must be reasonable and proportionate.
  5. As always in determining issues relating to the upbringing of a child it is the child’s welfare that is the Court’s paramount consideration.

Our Family lawyers have the knowledge and experience to guide you through these challenging times and have rankings in both Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500 for their expertise.

If you are affected by similar issues or would like to have a related discussion in confidence, please call me on 020 7091 2869 or email, lbarretto@bishopandsewell.co.uk

The above is accurate as at 06 January 2021. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.

The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.

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