A Concerned Atheist Parent January 3, 2008

A Concerned Atheist Parent

After reading the Time magazine article (from 1970) and perhaps seeing the comments made in the blogosphere, Jeremy is concerned.

He’s an atheist parent with custody of his children and he’s worried that his atheism may one day be used against him:

As some of you might know, I’m the residential parent for two beautiful young ladies (10 and 11). Their mother, an alcoholic mess who has paid a grand total of ten dollars in child support over 3 years, is unreliable and has a police record full of alcoholic and violent offenses a mile long. I don’t use any drugs, I drink socially at most, and I have a long track record of reliability and financial stability while providing a good and safe home for my girls.

… but I am an atheist. I really, really don’t think there’s a god. If that’s brought up, I won’t be able to lie about my (lack of) beliefs. They’re public knowlege in my family and friends, and I would morally have a big issue about lying to the courts (they’ve done an amazing job, and I’ve been very happy with the level of honesty and caring I’ve found with the family court system in our area). The [Time] article I linked above, however, leads me to think that I may be making myself vulnerable in an area which defies logic, in my mind…

Here are his questions:

Am I screwed here? What are the actual legal implications of being an atheist in a custody case if one comes up? Does anyone have any suggestions about this?

Anyone have any lawyer-ish knowledge? Helpful suggestions?

Jeremy’s from Ohio, if it helps.

(via Unorthodox Atheism)

[tags]atheist, atheism, custody[/tags]

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  • Vincent

    I haven’t read Jeremy’s whole post, just what’s quoted here, and I am not licensed to practice law in his state.
    Generally speaking, states grant the custodial parent the right to make decisions regarding religion, education, health care, etc. A custodial parent’s choice can be challenged only if it can be shown to be not in the best interest of the child.
    I have not seen any cases where atheism came up, but I suspect it would be very difficult to prove that a moral atheist household is not in the best interest of the child.
    The best bet is probably to look into cases involving homosexuality. In the past, courts have sometimes said that having a gay parent head of household is not in the best interest of the child. However, recently (maybe as far back as 2006, I’d have to check) a court in the extremely religious right-wing state of Oklahoma ruled that homosexuality itself is a neutral factor. Having a “homosexual lifestyle” cannot be assumed bad. The other parent must show actual harm.
    I assume the same would be here. The other parent would have to show how a lack of religion is actually harming the child.
    Considering the recent study about how being more religious leads a society to be more disfunctional and similar recent publications, I think that would be hard if not impossible.

    I suggest he ask his lawyer though, since he says he has one on retainer. A good lawyer wouldn’t charge him for looking up to see if this had ever come up in Ohio.

  • I’d think you’d be more screwed because your a man than an atheist (neither is good in this country, I’ll admit). Stay strong and be the best parent that you can be, because that’s something that neither the government or the church.

    A Christian existentialist who sees the radical fringes like the drunken brother at the family reunion.

  • Just FYI the case referenced in that Time article was reversed unanimously by the New Jersey Supreme Court. You can read the opinion here.

  • Okay, first-

    I didn’t notice the “1970”. If I had, I’d have been a touch less freaked out. 🙂

    That said, thank you for your comments guys.
    John Meyer – you’re somewhat right. My divorce lawyer even mentioned (and this is a paraphrase) that “family courts are the last sanction of legal sexist behavior”. Still, I have to say that I was treated fairly by our courts, and that the outcome was definitely fine in my eyes.

    Thank you – I actually played a bit of phone tag with my lawyer today about this… and of course, given that I’m apparently blind and missed the 1970 at the top of the frickin’ article, it’s kind of moot. 🙂 Even with that, I’m still worried about whether being in the most reviled American minority is a danger to my parental rights. Of course, I tend to be paranoid about that – it IS a slippery slope whenever family courts are brought in, and any arguments can be brought forth… and no matter how ludicrous or dated the arguments might be, they can still hold surprising weight.

    Thank you again to all – and especially to the Friendly Atheist, mister Mehta as well as Reed from Unorthodox Atheism for posting about this.

    I feel a bit sheepish now. 🙂

  • CJ

    If you follow the story on that case, you’ll see that the decision was overturned unanimously by the higher court after every single person speaking in the case (the adoption agencies AND religious groups) all came out against the judge’s decision. This was a clear example of violation of separation of church and state, and even the religious groups came to realize this could be used against them.

    Here’s a link to the decision.

    To quote one of the concurrent opinions:

    This is precisely what the First Amendment forbids.


    No matter how it is phrased or explained, an inquiry into religious, spiritual and ethical views can mean no more than this, that a man or a woman is unfit, or a bit unfit, to be a parent, natural or adoptive, if his or her thoughts exceed the tolerance of the mortal who happens to be the judge in a placement bureau or in the judiciary. I find such an inquiry to be as offensive as it is meddlesome and irrelevant to the true issue. Every incursion is sure to repeat the spectacle now before us. I think it strong evidence of good moral character that an applicant wants to rear a child, and that should be quite enough in the absence of positive conduct revealing unfitness for parenthood.

  • Richard Wade

    Jeremy, I’m glad it has turned out well in court so far. Don’t feel sheepish since you have more challenges ahead of you as your daughters move through school. Hopefully it will never happen to you but we have seen a number of incidents where school kids are harassed or persecuted because of their parent’s atheism. Your rights as a parent may be secure but your and your kids’ right to respect and fairness are not so well guarded.

    Teach your daughters to think for themselves, to be proud of themselves yet humble in their demeanor, to pick and choose their battles and to seek help if they’re ever bullied. They’re lucky to have you. I wish you and your family the best.

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