Keith B. Schulefand, Esq.
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Can New York force parents to raise their children in a certain religion?

In child custody disputes and other parenting matters, the New York courts have considerable authority. They can decide that a certain parenting time arrangement is not in the child's best interests. They can decide whether or not a father can move out of state with his children. They can even decide that an abusive mother should not be allowed to spend time with her children at all.

But can the courts rule on parenting issues related to religion? Can they enforce a certain religious doctrine or prohibit a child from being raised in a certain faith? How does the separation of church and state affect custody and parenting agreements?

These were the types of questions raised in the recent New York appellate decision regarding Storfer v. Storfer.

According to The Washington Post, the two parents had agreed to raise their child "in accordance with the tenets of the Modern Orthodox Jewish faith." However, the father believed the child's mother was failing to abide by that agreement. Yes, she was raising the child in the Jewish faith, but he didn't believe it was the "Modern Orthodox" faith.

The father asked the trial court to enforce the agreement. The court refused.

As the law currently stands, secular courts are not allowed to resolve questions that turn on specific religious doctrine. They can attempt to determine if an individual genuinely believes that something is allowed or forbidden by his or her religion, but the courts cannot decide that something truly is or is not part of a certain religious doctrine. For this reason, the trial court in Storfer v. Storfer was unable to say whether or not the mother was raising the child in conformity with the Modern Orthodox Jewish faith.

For parents who want the courts to play a more definitive role and "lay down the law" in regard to religious issues, the official stance is frustrating. For many others, the fact that the government isn't allowed to favor one religious group or doctrine over another is deeply comforting.

To learn more about the current state of the law and how it may affect your child custody or visitation case, consult a skilled family law attorney who keeps abreast of these developing issues. He or she can advise you about what to expect in your particular situation.

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