Child Custody and Religion

Child Custody and Religion

In Stancek v. Stancek, A13-0179 (Minn. Ct. App. 2014), the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the award of sole legal and physical custody of three young daughters to their father while reversing the limitation that prohibited the children from attending or participating in their mother’s church.             The parents had both belonged to the same church, the Word of Life Church, during the marriage, and the mother’s mother and brother were pastors there. When the parties separated, the Church prohibited the father from attending the church and attending school events even though their oldest child attended kindergarten there at the time.

Under Minnesota law, child custody decisions are to be based on the child’s best interest, and courts are to consider thirteen factors in making that determination. Minn. Stat. Section 518.17 In addition, when the party seeks joint physical and/or legal custody, there are four additional factors: the parents’ ability to cooperate in raising the children; methods of dispute resolution for major decisions regarding the children and the parties’ willingness to use them; whether it would be detrimental if one child had sole authority of the child; and whether there has been domestic abuse. Minn. Stat. Section 518.17, subd. 2 (a)-(d).

Although the statute provides for a rebuttable presumption in favor of joint legal and physical custody, the court found that the record supported the court’s findings that joint custody was not appropriate here. The record indicated that the parties could not agree on anything, not even doctor’s appointments and exchanges of children, much less major decisions. The fact that the parents had agreed on the appointment of a parenting consultant was not sufficient to show that joint custody was workable, as the parties had previous used third-party decision-makers without success.   Two custody evaluations had been conducted, one by a court-appointed evaluator and one by an independent evaluator paid by the mother, and neither evaluator endorsed joint custody.

The Court of Appeals thus held that the district court’s award of sole custody rather than joint custody was not an abuse of discretion, given the extreme animosity between the parents, even though the court could also have awarded joint custody. To prevail, the mother needed to show that the district court abused its discretion; simply showing that the record could also support joint custody was not sufficient to show the court abused its discretion

The Court of Appeals also rejected the mother’s claim that sole custody should have been given to the mother, who had been the children’s primary caregiver during the marriage and was a fit parent. The court held that the district court acted within its discretion in awarding sole custody to the father, emphasizing that there is no presumption in favor of the primary caregiver. The district court had specifically found that the father was “marginally better than mother” at including the noncustodial parent in the children’s life.   The district court had emphasized that the mother had used the church to restrict the father’s access to the children. The Court of Appeals found that the references to the church did not indicate a bias against the church but reflected concern over the limitation of access to the children, nothing that the father now attends a church with similar religious teachings.

The Court of Appeals did find that the evidence did not support the court’s finding that the actions of the mother’s parents and other church members made it impossible for the court to permit the children to remain part of the Word of Life congregation.            The court noted that the temporary custody order had allowed both parents to take the children to their churches, and there was no evidence this harmed the children. Thus, the court found the restrictions on the children attending the Word of Life church or its daycare facility were unsupported and reversed.

The mother had argued that her right to free exercise of religion and the establishment clause of the United States and Minnesota Constitution had had been infringed, and the Faith & Freedom Fund, Inc. had filed a friend of the court brief in support of her argument. The Court of Appeals found the establishment clause argument was not preserved by the parties, and, because it eliminated the limitation on the children attending or being a part of the Word of Life Church, it did not address the free exercise of religion argument, as she would be able to take her children with her to the church.

For any child custody dispute, you should contact an experienced family law practitioner.