Parental Control of Religion Challenged

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 12, 2007 — 2 Comments

Religion Clause and The Jewish Daily Forward are reporting on a landmark case that could completely redefine the rights of minors to choose their own religious practice. The case involves a divorced Jewish couple and their 13-year-old son who wishes to practice Orthodox Judaism against the wishes of the father.

“His three older children are now emancipated and estranged from him. However he still has legal custody of 13-year old Ephraim who wishes to continue to practice Orthodox Judaism. Solko however forbids his son from practicing traditions such as keeping kosher and wearing a yarmulke. This has led Ephraim to attempt to run away from home. His mother is attempting to obtain a change in custody so that Ephraim can attend school in Brooklyn and merely spend the summers with his father.”

Among the groups filing amicus briefs for the case are a variety of child legal advocates and the “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America. While the Jewish group admits it is involved because the child wants to be Orthodox, a spokesman says they are comfortable with the legal ramifications coming from their support.

“As a matter of law, we wouldn’t argue that a 13- or 14-year-old child would have no rights if their parents were forcing them against their will, let’s say, to attend a religious school. That would be an inconsistency, and that’s a position that I believe we have never taken.”

If Julie Ann Bergmann (the mother) and her supporters win this case it could create a legal precedent in which a minor as young as 13 could choose their own religious life despite the wishes of the parents. The ramifications for modern Paganism are immediately clear. A child who converts to a modern Pagan faith could refuse to attend Christian Church or be forced into a school that inhibited his or her religious choices. It would also help protect Pagan parents from custody challenges brought by Christian relatives (so long as the child expressed a preference for modern Paganism).

“Marc Stern, general counsel for AJCongress, said he was concerned that Agudath Israel might unwittingly help set a precedent “that children have their own rights, even in defiance of their parents,” which could make it harder for parents to make religiously motivated decisions on behalf of their minor children.”

Pagan leaders, clergy, and chaplains need to take note: if this case is successful, there is a very good chance more will follow in order to help establish the legal precedent. It could create situations in which a minor has the legal right to attend an event or religiously-oriented training against the wishes of a parent. Groups will have to carefully reevaluate their policies regarding minors and parental permissions if this new precedent is established.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • HR Mitchell

    Groups will have to carefully reevaluate their policies regarding minors and parental permissions if this new precedent is established.I don’t really think so – those groups that already are willing to teach minors will continue to do so, and those that do not, will likely continue to do so as well.

  • Barbara

    What saddens me the most about this isn’t just the religious issue, but that of how custody decisions are made, and how people behave after a divorce with children. Perhaps judges shouldn’t make these decisions. Maybe it would be better in the hands of a panel of child development experts, because the current system, IMO, doesn’t work very well.It seems to me that no matter which parent “wins” in a custody battle, the child always loses — because it’s a battle.