The case of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise brings up an interesting question: What happens when divorced parents have irreconcilable religious differences?
A statement from Holmes’ lawyer last week requested privacy when it came to the pair’s 6-year-old daughter, Suri, who may now be pulled between her father’s Scientology and her mother’s Catholicism.
The parent with primary custody decides in what faith the child will be raised. If Suri lives with her mother for a majority of the time — as TMZ suggests will be the case — then Holmes will have the right to determine how (or whether) the girl worships. This means that Suri is probably more likely to grow up with saints and Psalms than with hypnosis and the Scientology Code of Honor.
Still, most courts allow the noncustodial parent to expose the child to his or her religious beliefs, so long as no effort is made to denigrate the faith of the custodial parent.
Behind this judicial leniency stands the conviction that every child should eventually have the power to chart her own religious course — and that only after encountering both mom’s and dad’s spiritual practices can she truly make an informed decision.
Of course, our Hollywood case has the added complication of two religions that don’t enjoy the same degree of cultural legitimacy. Might a judge force Cruise to relinquish spiritual sway over his daughter because Scientology is perceived as a cult, not a religion?
While any divorce court ruling depends in part upon the temperament of the individual magistrate, most judges would be reluctant to intervene in such a scenario unless the second religion had caused the child demonstrable harm. (Either that, or if a tenet of the faith seemed likely to interfere with the child’s adjustment post-settlement. Should Cruise’s Scientology inform his attitudes towards therapy, for instance, and lead him to deny Suri psychiatric treatment as needed, Holmes would have a strong argument for banning the religion entirely.)
The trick here is balancing parents’ First Amendment right to practice their religions — and to rear their children according to their own lights — against the best interests of the children.
In 1992, Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled that being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness was not sufficiently damaging to justify a new custody arrangement, even though the child in question experienced social isolation as a result of membership in the sect.
Two years earlier, in Pennsylvania, a court permitted a Catholic father to bring his children to Mass on the condition that he also took them to Jewish services. (His ex-wife was Jewish.)
No precedent exists such that, if a judge awards Cruise and Holmes absolutely equal custodial rights, Suri must be raised half-Catholic and half-Scientologist. But most likely, the 6-year-old would practice the religion of the parent with whom she was staying until she reached an age to choose her own faith.
If one or both parents deemed that solution unacceptable, the court would probably hold a hearing, summoning forensic psychiatrists, ancillary witnesses, and experts in the precepts of the two religions to offer testimony about the child’s best interests.
In such a case, Cruise’s expert might counter tales of Scientology’s cosmic weirdness with reports of Catholic child abuse and homophobia.