Michigan Court Prefers Agnostic Parent Over a Parent Who Has Been Finding Religion:

Here's an excerpt from a recent Michigan court decision:

The Plaintiff [father] testified that agnosticism and scientific rationalism were important factors to both parties when they were first married and both felt strongly about not raising their daughter in organized religion. The Plaintiff remains consistent in not attending any religious services with the daughter. The Plaintiff's testimony and actions appear to be sincere in raising the daughter outside any organized religion.

The Defendant [mother] testified that she was more firm in avoiding religious organizations during the summer, but during the winter months she found herself drawn to church, both because of the friendly environment and community feeling it provides, and because her earlier opposition to religion has been softening. The Defendant testified that she has allowed the daughter to make the decision as to whether or not she attends church. However, the court agrees with the Plaintiff that this is not a decision which should be left up to a young child who was 3½ at the time of the decision. The Plaintiff testified that the Defendant has admitted to him that she takes daughter to church occasionally and does not feel that it will make a difference.

The Plaintiff appears to be more consistent in avoiding organized religion with the daughter on a regular basis now that the parties have separated. The court must remain neutral with respect to each of the parties' religious beliefs, however, both parties agreed that agnosticism and scientific rationalism was an important factor when they were first married and when they started their family. Since the parties have separated, the Plaintiff is the parent who has actively participated in the daughter's agnostic, rationalistic upbringing while the Defendant has allowed the daughter to make the decision on whether she attends church....

As to raising the daughter in her absence of religion, the Court concludes that this factor favors the Plaintiff.

Of course, this isn't a real decision -- it's a recasting of the decision I blogged about yesterday, in which the court preferred the more religiously observant parent over a parent who has moved towards having less interest in exposing her daughter to organized religion. But I think it's a useful way of looking at the problem.

It seems to me that this hypothetical decision would be a First Amendment violation. Remember that the judge wouldn't be finding any specific secular harm to the child from the change; there'd be no evidence that the child is finding the change to be disruptive (in fact, the child seems to prefer it), and no evidence that the religious services somehow involve some physical danger to the child. Nor would the judge be finding any binding contract to raise the child irreligious; there's no evidence of a willingness to be so bound, and no legal hook for the court to consider the contract between the parties in making a decision that's supposed to be about the best interest of the child.

The judge would simply be saying that a parent who had moved towards greater religiosity since when the child was born should be disfavored. And secular courts are not supposed to make such judgments.

But if I'm right, then how could the actual child custody decision (quite commonplace in Michigan courts, and some other courts, or so my research suggests) be constitutional? If a court can't hold against a parent the fact that she has moved away from agnosticism and towards religiosity, how can it hold against a parent the fact that she has moved away from organized religion and towards less church attendance?