Religious Teachings, Parenthood and the Law

As a specialist in cases involving children, I represent many parents involving disputes as to where their child should live or the amount of time a parent should spend with a child. In addition, I also represent parents where there is a dispute over a particular issue such as which school their child should attend, or which religion they should practice. In relation to the latter, I recently represented a father in relation to his wish for his child to be part of his religious beliefs, namely to follow the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witness Church.

The Mother raised concerns about the Father’s religious beliefs and how these might harm the child. This led to the Father applying to the Court for a Specific Issue Order as it was not possible for the parties to reach an agreement in this regard.

The Law relating to the upbringing of a child where one parent is a Jehovah’s Witness and the other not is helpfully set out in the cases of Re N (A Child-Religion-Jehovah’s Witness 2011 EWHC 26 and Re N (A Child:s37:ICO) 2014 EWFC.

The Judge carefully considered the law as outlined in these two cases and in particular, concentrated on the following points:

  1. There was no reason why a child should not attend the Kingdom Hall without limit;
  2. The Court can forbid parental “teaching” by way of a parent “instructing or giving lessons” in the Jehovah’s Witness Faith where there is the actual or potential risk that the child will experience consciously or unconsciously pressure to subscribe to that parent’s religion beliefs in preference to the other parent’s, and/or there is a risk that at some stage the child would become caught up in the conflict between the two sets of beliefs and thereby experience inner conflict between his loyalty to one parent and his loyalty to the other. It is both proportionate and necessary, and in the child’s best interests to restrict the parents’ right to ‘instruct’ or ‘give lessons’ concerning their Christian beliefs to avoid this kind of actual or potential conflict for the child. This can include limiting teaching by way of Bible studies and the showing of any kind of religious cartoons where it is necessary and proportionate to do so to prevent this kind of actual or risk of harm to the child.
  3. The Court can forbid field service namely walking from door to door since it is both necessary and proportionate to prevent a young child being involved in such activities which runs the risk of the child being subject to inhospitable and abusive behaviour and also include the kind of ‘teaching’ prohibited above.
  4. The Court can order that the child spend Christmas with a non Jehovah’s Witness parent so that the child can enjoy Christmas given that the Jehovah’s Witness parent does not recognise Christmas as a time for celebration. Similarly the court can order that a child spend his or her birthday and his or her parent’s birthday with that parent rather than with the Jehovah’s Witness parent since Jehovah’s witnesses do not celebrate birthdays. Similarly the court can order that a child spends Father’s or Mother’s Day with that parent rather than the Jehovah’s Witness parent since Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate those days.
  5. The Court can order that neither parent should prevent the child from taking part in school activities including Nativity plays, other plays, performances, concerts, after school clubs, sports and field trips since to deny the child of the opportunity to take part in such activities would be likely to mark him out as ‘different’ from other children and could potentially cause him distress.

In addition to the above, the Judge then went on to consider the welfare checklist to include the wishes and feelings of the child, the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs, the likely effect on the child of any change in circumstances, and any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering if the application is granted. The Court’s paramount consideration is always the child’s welfare.

Adopting the approach of Her Honour Judge Bellamy in Re N (A Child – Religion – Jehovah’s Witness) 2011 EWHC 26, the court restricted the child’s involvement to attendance at the Kingdom Hall for two hours on a Sunday and did not allow any one to one teaching such as bible studies and video clips, due to the perceived risk of harm.

Due to the nature of this case, it has subsequently been reported and can be found here.

For further help or advice on this topic, please contact Family Law specialist, Kirsty Stroud, on 01908 202150 or email kstroud@woodfines.co.uk.