Mother Not Allowed to Impose Parenting Plan That Would Effectively Advance Her Religion While Inhibiting Father’s Religion; Cheatham County Chancery Court

Pankratz v. Pankratz, (Tenn.App.Ct, filed October 25, 2017)



Trial Court:  This case involves a post-divorce modification of a parenting plan. The trial court found that there had been a material change in circumstances since the entry of the parties’
existing parenting plan. Mother and Father both appealed various issues. This blog post addresses Mother’s appeal that the trial court did not adopt, in toto, her proposed plan and allowed Father to continue to expose the child to his religion. 

As grounds for her petition, Mother averred that the parties’ conflicting social and religious views concerning the child’s upbringing had led to ongoing disagreements, and
it would be in the best interest of the child to be raised in a single environment. Mother, a practicing Christian, alleged that, since the parties’ separation, Father had converted to
Messianic Judaism (“Father’s Religion”). Following his conversion, Mother averred that Father had expressed his belief to her that her religion was a form of paganism and many of Mother’s lifestyle decisions were sinful. Mother further alleged that it was her understanding that Father’s religion prevents him from associating with non-believers.

The trial court held that there was not sufficient proof to justify the imposition of a parenting plan that would effectively advance Mother’s religion while inhibiting Father’s religion. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on this issue writing as follows:

Mother argues on appeal that the trial court erred in failing to adopt her proposed permanent parenting plan, in toto, and by allowing Father to continue to expose the child to his religion. Mother testified that the child experiences stomach aches before returning to Father’s house, and Mother believes Father’s practice of praying over the child is teaching the child that Mother’s lifestyle is morally corrupt. Both parties testified that they felt the child was conflicted because of her parents’ opposing religious and social views. Having acknowledged the parents’ concerns regarding the child’s exposure to their conflicting religions, the trial court nevertheless concluded that there was not sufficient proof in the record to justify the court’s imposition of a parenting plan that would effectively advance Mother’s religion while inhibiting Father’s religion.

Our courts have consistently held that parents have a fundamental right to practice their religion, as well as an important interest in their child’s religious upbringing.  Out of respect for these interests, courts strive to maintain strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents.   “In fact, the law tolerates and even encourages, up to a point, the child’s exposure to the religious influences of both parents even if they are divided in their faiths.” 

However, the welfare and best interest of the child are always the court’s paramount concerns, and a court may interfere when there is a clear and affirmative showing that one parent’s religious beliefs and practices threaten the health and wellbeing of the child.

The trial court in this case ………. concluded that Mother’s evidence was insufficient to prove that the child’s exposure to Father’s religion was harmful. Again, we note that we may only overturn the trial court’s discretionary decision in modifying the parties’ parenting plan for an abuse of discretion. Based on our review of the record in this case, we conclude that the trial court applied the proper legal standards and fashioned a parenting plan within the spectrum of proper reasonable results. Accordingly, we affirm its decision.

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