The following was submitted for publication in the “In Theory” section of the Burbank Leader, La Canada Valley Press and Glendale NewsPress, the week of March 1, 2010, in response to a situation in which a court determined that a child should be raised in one religious tradition only. The question was: Should the courts be dictating what religion parents should teach their children? Did they go too far in this case? Should this be something private, something that only the parents should decide among themselves without the court’s influence?
Many parents believe that the greatest gift they can ever pass on to their children is the gift of religious identity – often their own. For interfaith couples that gift can be a matter of exposing their children to the values and traditions of both religions, trusting that they will ultimately choose for themselves; or by agreeing to focus on fostering a single religious identity.
In the example given, the latter agreement was apparently made by both parents and subsequently broken by one of them. Courts are empowered to enforce all sorts of personal agreements made between individuals (as long as they aren’t contrary to public policy). As such, the court’s ruling here seems legally appropriate – even if unfortunate. I can’t think of a better way to assure that a child grows up with a deep-seated resentment of religion (and authority in general), than religious strife among parents.
From a Unitarian Universalist perspective, children are best served when their parents’ actions are grounded in the highest ideals of their own faith traditions – whatever they may be. The particulars aren’t nearly as important as that the child bear witness to the parents’ capacity to respect difference, to love unconditionally, and to be committed to peace. It also helps when parents remember that children are destined to grow into, and be stewards of, their own spiritual journey.
On the upside: it is fortunate that we are no longer subject to court decisions like those made in the days of Solomon – when disputes regarding children were likely to result in each side being granted rights over one “half” of the child. At least in the example cited here the child’s life is spared. It remains to be seen what becomes of her religious identity.
The Rev. Stefanie Etzbach-Dale
Unitarian Universalist Church of Verdugo Hills, La Crescenta, CA