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“Merry Kwanzmas, Jimmy!” Children’s religion in separated families

Canadian courts have acknowledged that children benefit from exposure to the religion, culture, and experiences of both parents. However, it is not uncommon for parents to disagree on which religious practices their children will observe post separation. Some parents will even take the position that the children will only engage in his or her religious community, and that the other parent, often the access parent, should facilitate that religious practice for the children during his or her parenting time. In light of the case law on this subject, parents should strongly reconsider their positions if they intend on bringing issues of the children’s religion to court.

The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that as long as different religious practices do not cause harm to a child, a child’s exposure to different parental faiths may generally be of great value, Young v Young, [1993] 4 SCR 3 at para 183. With that said, disagreeing parents should focus on the common social and moral teachings of their respective faiths, and remember that courts generally take a “hands off” approach when it comes to the issue of religion. Below are a few examples of how Courts are hesitant to intervene on this sensitive issue.

In a somewhat recent decision out of Ontario called Lihou v Lihou, 2011 ONSC 7671, the mother requested that the Court order the father to take the children to Baptist church during his parenting time. In response, the Court stated:

… there are always differences in the manner in which individuals parent their children. One of the benefits of two involved and engaged parents is that the children are exposed to different parenting styles, different values and points of view and different experiences. Religion is an important issue. Mr. Lihou’s views, whatever they may be, are just as valid as Mrs. Lihou’s views. I will not impose Mrs. Lihou’s views on Mr. Lihou’s time with the children.

In L. (V.E.) v L. (L.E.), (1998) 62 ACWS (3d) 326, separated parents took their children to church during their respective parenting times; the mother was a Mormon, and the father a Roman Catholic. The Court commended the parties for exposing their children to different religions, and stated that the commitment of both parents to the values and moral teachings of their respective churches would no doubt benefit the children in the future.

There are several other cases, similar to the ones cited above, which should dissuade parents from litigating the issue of their children’s religion. Of course, there may be instances where a child is torn between two fundamentalist religious practices which may cause mental and emotional harm. In most situations, however, children are not in a state of mental or emotional conflict engaging in different faiths. They are learning fundamental values which will make them well-rounded, open minded and caring individuals.

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