Religion has been the cause of countless disputes over the centuries, but surprisingly few disputes regarding religion have reached the family courts.
Recently, the High Court heard a case in which the father of a child disputed the right of the child’s mother to ‘allow or encourage’ the child to share her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Whilst everyone has the right to follow their religious beliefs, where those of estranged parents conflict, there must be a means of ensuring that the conflict is resolved in a way that serves the best interests of the child.
The ruling set out the principles the courts should apply in such cases. These are:
- Parental responsibility is joint and equal. Therefore, a child should normally have the right to learn about and experience the religious beliefs of both parents. Neither parent has the right to dictate the religious upbringing of the child; and
- Where the practice of the religion of one parent conflicts with the lifestyle of the other and this may impact on the child’s welfare, the court has the right to restrict the child’s involvement in the religious practices of either parent. Such restrictions must be justified and proportionate.
In all instances, it is the welfare of the child which is the paramount consideration of the court.
The judge’s order followed these principles. In particular, it constrained the mother’s right to limit medical treatment received by the child to procedures allowed by her religion.