Contested Religious Upbringing: Guiding Principles

29 MARCH 2012
Re N (A Child: Religion: Jehovah’s Witness) [2011] EWHC B26 (Fam)

On 24th August 2011 His Honour Judge Clifford Bellamy, sitting in the High Court at Coventry, was asked to rule on a Father’s application to restrict the Mother’s involvement of their child N in her religious practice as a Jehovah’s Witness.

In making an order providing for the religious and medical consequences of N’s divergent parental religious beliefs, at paragraph 85 of his judgment, His Honour set out the following guiding principles:

(1)   Parental responsibility is joint and equal. Neither parent has a predominant right to choose a child's religious upbringing.

(2)   Where parents follow different religions and those religions are both socially acceptable the child should have the opportunity to learn about and experience both religions.

(3)   A parent's right to enable her child to learn about and experience his or her religion is not an unconfined right. Where the practice of that religion involves a lifestyle which conflicts with the lifestyle of the other parent and the court is satisfied that that conflict has had or may in the future have an impact on the child's welfare the court is entitled to restrict the child's involvement in those practices.

(4)   Restrictions imposed for welfare reasons do not necessarily amount to a breach of that parent's right to follow the beliefs and practices of his or her religion provided that any restriction imposed is justified by the findings made by the court and is proportionate.

(5)   In determining such an issue, as in the determination of any other question relating to the upbringing of the child, the child's welfare is the court's paramount consideration.

The Judge made a shared residence order indicating that, whilst such orders need not lead to an equal division of the child’s time, he was satisfied that N’s welfare required that the division of time was “equal or close to equal”.  He went on to say that, “Given the differences between these parents so far as the issue of religious upbringing is concerned, a broadly equal sharing of time is in my judgment one way of trying to guard against the risk that the religious perspective of either parent will predominate.” 

David Gareth Evans