Family Law Courts expect parents with shared parental responsibility to work out their differences when choosing a religion in which to raise their child. Parents usually agree about the religious upbringing of their children. When they disagree, the issue becomes a difficult one for a Family Law Court to resolve.
After a divorce, Australian law favours giving both parents equal shared responsibility for making parental decisions. Examples of those decisions include whether a child should have an elective medical procedure, where the child should attend school, and whether the child should be raised in a particular religion.
When courts have granted shared parental responsibility to both parents, the parents are expected to work out their differences on their own. If they cannot do so, they are usually required to seek the assistance of a mediator.
A good compromise might be to expose the children to both religions (or, if one parent has no religion, to expose the child to the beliefs of each parent) and to allow the child to make his or her own choice after reaching a mature age. When parents refuse to come to an agreement, however, courts are forced to intervene.
In cases that do not involve shared parental responsibility, the court will typically allow the custodial parent to decide upon the child’s religion. The more difficult cases are those that involve shared parental decision-making.
Courts cannot decide whether any particular religion is correct in its beliefs. Religious beliefs are for individuals to decide upon, and courts have no wish to intrude upon that right.
Courts therefore make a minimal inquiry into whether exposure to a particular religion will be detrimental to a child. Courts must always act with the best interests of the child in mind, and it would not be in a child’s best interest to be exposed to extreme views that might harm the child or impede the child’s development.
Since religious beliefs (or their absence) will rarely have a harmful impact on a child, the court will rarely decide that a child should be raised in one parent’s religion or the other’s. Instead, courts will typically allow each parent to expose the child to that parent’s religion while the child is spending time with that parent.
Parents may jeopardize their ability to spend time with their child if they consistently portray the other parent’s religion (and by implication, the other parent) as evil. Courts do not appreciate one parent poisoning the child against the other.
It is therefore best for a parent to be respectful of the other parent’s beliefs when discussing religion with a child. Explaining that different people have different beliefs, and discussing why you hold your own belief, is the preferred method of influencing the decisions that your child will make about religion later in life.