Custody in Virginia comes in one of two types: legal and physical. A lot of the time, we’re fighting over physical custody, because that has to do with where the child spends the majority of his or her time. But, of course, that’s not always the case. Every so often, different issues come up, and, sometimes, it’s the legal custody part of the equation that is called into question. Legal custody, in Virginia, refers specifically to the right to make decisions on behalf of the child with respect to three specific issues: religious upbringing, non emergency medical care, and education.
Most of the time, legal custody is awarded jointly because judges believe that the right to make these types of decisions is absolutely critical to parenthood. Besides, most of the time, these decisions aren’t hard. These decisions are often made fairly early on, and parents are often in agreement. Parents often make these decisions while their children are young, and, often, the decisions are easy. Enroll the child in the local public school. Vaccinate, and attend regular check ups. Those are normal, mainstream decisions that most (though not all) parents make.
Often, parents agree about religion, too. It’s not that you can’t fall in love and have a child with someone outside of your own faith (certainly you can, and it happens all the time), but I do find that, most of the time, parents are either in agreement with respect to religion or they’re at least ambivalent about their child’s other parent’s choices. Not always, of course—which is probably why you’ve found your way to this particular article.
You’re here because religion is important to you. You’re here because religion is important to your child’s father, too. You’re here because you don’t agree, and you can’t make a decision with respect to the religious beliefs you impart to your child.
I had a case a little while ago where the child’s father told my client that he would take her to court if she took the child to her church. He said if she wasn’t raised according to a specific tradition, then she wouldn’t be introduced to religion at all.
I haven’t had this case, but I imagine it’d be a problem, too, if one parent would prefer to raise a child outside of any religious background. If one of you is an atheist or an agnostic, there may be some logistical issues as well.
So, what happens if I take my child to church over my child’s father’s objection?
If you’ve got a custody agreement or order in place giving both of you joint legal custody, technically you would be violating that order by taking your child to church. If your child’s father chose to make an issue of it and took you to court on a show cause, you could, theoretically at least, face some consequences. Do I think you would? No. I can’t imagine that any judge would really sanction someone for taking their child to church.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do whatever you want with respect to any issue that comes up under the joint legal custody heading, but I do think that, at least where religion is concerned, you’re likely to find that the judge consults the best interests of the child factors and finds that attending church is in your child’s best interests.
The judge won’t require that your child’s father take your child to your church during his parenting time; in fact, I think a judge would probably say that, during his parenting time, your child’s father is free to provide whatever religious education he preferred to provide. If that means taking your child to a different church—or no church at all—that’s probably his prerogative.
Now, if we’re talking about a cult or some other kind of weird set of religious values, it may be worth raising the issue in court. Depending on the evidence that you have and what you’re able to prove, you may be able to prevent that kind of unhealthy exposure.
All in all, though, I think that most judges would find that attending church is healthy and wholesome, and not outside of a child’s best interests, even if both parents don’t share the same religious beliefs. Not only that, but I think there’s space for both parents to advance their own spiritual argument during their own parenting time, which is probably also in the child’s best interest – at least, it gives the child a wealth of knowledge on which to draw later in life.
Do you have ultimate authority to decide what is or is not appropriate for your child? No—that’s the whole point of joint legal custody. But that doesn’t mean that your child’s father’s veto is enough to prevent you from being able to provide the kind of religious upbringing that you’d like. Of course, that means you’ll probably have to be okay with what your child’s father chooses to teach, too, whether it’s opposite of your beliefs, or even no beliefs at all.
You can take this issue to court all on your own, if you’d like, or hire an attorney. If you’re interested in representing yourself, consider attending Custody Bootcamp for Moms. For more information or to request a copy of our free report, “Can I REALLY Represent Myself in a Custody Case?” click here. To schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.