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What role does religion play in child custody cases?

There are many people who are married to a person from another religion. Many interfaith couples and their children practice either religion or both religions. However, in the event of divorce, the child’s religious practices may become a point of contention after the parents separate.

According to legal convention, courts in Tennessee, and in the rest of the country, determine which parent’s religion the child will follow after the divorce, but the court’s decision may vary depending on the circumstances of a particular child custody case. However, as a rule of thumb, the courts will attempt to strike a balance between the best interests of the child and the First Amendment rights of the parents.

In order to carry out this analysis, the court will generally apply certain standards because there are no laws that explicitly address this issue. Those three standards are as follows

  • Actual or substantial harm standard
  • Risk of harm standard
  • No harm standard

According to the actual or substantial harm standard, the court will only prohibit a parent from raising a child under a religion of that parent’s choice if such efforts cause actual or substantial harm to the child’s best interests. Under the risk of harm standard, the court will prohibit a parent from raising a child under the parent’s chosen practice of that religion if it poses risks to the best interests of the child. According to the no harm standard, a court will allow a custodial parent to raise the child under the religion of choice. Interestingly, if the non-custodial parent has objections, the court will usually side with the custodial parent.

When parents practice different religions, it can bring about some unique challenges in a child custody case. Therefore, it may be a wise decision if the parents retain an attorney who can help them to exercise their parental rights as well as their First Amendment rights.

Source:, “Divorce: Child Custody and Religion,” Accessed on June 25, 2015


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