Dispatches from the Creation Wars

When Religion Matters in Custody Cases

I have long been a staunch critic of judges who use religion as a factor in making custody decisions. It is not at all unusual for a judge in a divorce to decide that the child would be better off with a religious parent rather than a non-religious one. But here’s a case where I think that’s entirely legitimate.

In Winters v. Brown, a Florida appellate court upheld applying the “best interest of the child” test to affirm a trial court’s award of control over health care decisions for his minor child to the child’s father. Matthew Brown, the father, who was never married to Shannon Winters, the mother, petitioned for establishment of paternity and control over health care, religious and educational issues when Winters obtained a exemption from the public school immunization requirements for the child. Winters objects on religious grounds to introducing anything into the body to prevent disease or treat illness.


This decision is correct because it is based on real harm to the child, regardless of whether the source of that harm is religious or not. It wouldn’t matter what justification is used by the mother to deny immunization or proper medical care to the child, and in fact lots of non-religious folks also buy into the anti-vaccination myths that are becoming more and more popular.

What matters is that the mother’s actions will cause definable harm to the child. She will not provide adequate medical care for the child while the father will. That her motivation is religious is irrelevant. And it is always the best interests of the child that should decide such matters.