Centuori & Alcoverde, P.C.

An unusual custody battle has been reversed on appeal, a move that is touted as a win for both freedom of speech and religion. The case centers on a mother and father who do not share the same religious beliefs. During a child custody dispute, the issue of parental alienation was raised in the context of religious practices. While this case did not take place in Arizona, some parents within the state may face similar issues in regard to balancing custody and religious practice.

The former partners share five minor children, all of whom resided in the care of their mother, with the father having visitation. However, the father took the matter back to court, claiming that the mother allowed one of her older children to unduly influence younger siblings against religious practice. Because the father is the devoted churchgoer, he claims that the mother participated in alienating his younger children against him by permitting the older sibling to speak poorly about his religious practice.

On appeal, the higher court found that the ruling of the lower court was overly focused on the religious aspects of the case. An established rule requiring courts to refrain from interfering in a family's religious matters was found to be violated. Therefore, the case was reversed on appeal, and custody was given back to the mother.

In Arizona and elsewhere, parents have the right to practice their religion as they see fit and to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. When a dispute arises between two estranged parents in regard to religious practice, the courts will usually refrain from getting involved. This case shows an aberration from that norm, and it can be viewed as an illustration of the risks of handling child custody matters inside a court of law.

Source: The Washington Post, "Court shifts custody because mother let child ???talk negatively about religion??? to siblings (thus supposedly alienating siblings from father)", Eugene Volokh, Nov. 3, 2016

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