Custodians of the faith

kramer vs kramerA few readers sent along an excellent story by Neela Banerjee in the New York Times. She looked at custody disputes across the country where religion comes into play. The story is fantastic. Wonderfully balanced, very informative and full of excellent reporting:

MADISON, Ala. -- On a January night nine years ago, Laura Snider was saved.

A 27-year-old single mother at the time, Mrs. Snider felt she had ruined her life through a disastrous marriage and divorce. But in her kitchen that night, after reading pamphlets and Bible passages that her boss had pointed her to, she realized she was a sinner, she said, she prayed for forgiveness, and put her trust in Christ.

Four years later, the conservative brand of Christianity Mrs. Snider embraced became the source of a bitter, continuing custody battle over her only child, Libby Mashburn.

Custody disputes with religious overtones are increasing, Banerjee writes, as are custody conflicts in general. She speaks with a family law expert who says that intermarriage and a greater willingness to convert are part of the reason why. No interest groups keep track of how religious disputes are decided but judges don't show a preference for one side over another, Banerjee writes:

Judges do not want to take on custody disputes rooted in religion, said lawyers like Gaetano Ferro, who until recently served as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Mr. Ferro said, "How will a judge say in any rational fashion that Islam is better than Buddhism, Catholicism better than Judaism, or Methodism better than Pentecostalism?"

Banerjee discusses the case of a parent who converted to Judaism after his divorce and wanted his son, age 12, circumcised. Another parent fought to keep his daughter in school after her mother became Amish. School for Amish girls usually ends at the 8th grade. A Mormon mother fought her former husband after he claimed polygamy as a religious tenet of his faith. In the Snider case, the father was given custody of Libby at the age of 6 because of her strict religious upbringing. In all the cases, Banerjee permits the families to speak freely:

The Sniders are quietly, unapologetically fundamentalist. They believe that American culture, even conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, has drifted perilously far from biblical teachings. They attend a large Independent Baptist church in Madison, where the music, the sanctuary and the congregants are unadorned and old-fashioned.

Women wear skirts as a sign of modesty. They do not swim in mixed company. They eschew rock music and nearly all popular culture. They do not drink, smoke or swear. . . .

At the last hearing, Libby, who spends about 40 percent of her time with the Sniders, testified against Mr. Mashburn.

"I'm more of my mom's religion, and my dad sometimes talks bad about my mom," she said. "He called it a cult, and it's definitely not a cult. It kind of makes me mad sometimes. Maybe he thinks her religion may be bad for me, but I think mainly he doesn't like my mom and is using that as an excuse."

Another great story from Banerjee, informative and sensitively told.

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