Extreme religious practices can harm your chances for full custody
There’s nothing wrong with being a religious family, and in fact, spiritual devotion may improve your claim for custody of your children. However, if you or the other parent follows any extreme religious practices that my be dangerous to a child, your faith may stand in the way of your case for custody. Indeed, radical religious practices can cause a judge to place the child with the other, less religious parent.
That was exactly the risk that was presented in the case of Harris vs. Harris, a 1977 case from Mississippi. The mother belonged to a fundamentalist sect that believed in snake handling, and this prompted the judge to award custody to the father. The mother appealed, and won back the custody of her child when she was able to demonstrate the her attendance at church did not expose her or the child to snakes, and she not only had never been anointed with the power to handle snakes but also did not expect to be so anointed.
The danger to the child need not be a physical one, such as a snake bite, to raise the judge’s level of concern. Some religious practices may appear immoral or anti-social or contrary to common cultural practices in the United States. The more extreme or unusual the religious practices, the more likely it may interfere with a custody claim. In Quiner vs Quiner, a California case, the judge initially took custody away from a mother who subscribed to a religious group known as the “Exclusive Brethren.” This group held that children of school age could not eat in the school cafeteria, but rather must eat their own box lunch alone and secluded from their schoolmates, who are, as they are taught, ‘spiritually unclean.’ Child were not permitted to affiliate with any outside organization. This includes membership in political, social service, religious, economic, educational, trade union, cultural, and all other groups. Pre-kindergarten nursery schools were banned. While permitted to attend public schools as required by law, children were discouraged, if not forbidden as sinful, from participating in all forms of extracurricular activity. This includes all forms of participation in athletic, dramatic, musical, social, literary, scientific, political and other extra scholastic activities. In fact, even though unorganized forms of play at school with other children are sanctioned, children of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’ could not visit or play with other children in their homes, or in their own homes or elsewhere. This precluded membership in Boy or Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, Little League, Y.M.C.A. and other similar youth groups.
A judge cannot constitutionally substitute his own judgment of what’s right and what’s wrong. He cannot select a religious faith he finds acceptable or admirable. He cannot “judge” which religions are good and which are not. But in reaching the very broad question of what serves the “best interests” of the child, the judge must necessarily consider all activities that may be dangerous, immoral, or otherwise contrary to a safety and healthy development of the child.