Who picks their kid's religion?

Admittedly, this story might seem a bit stale. The news passed last month when the plight of little Ela Reyes was reported over and over on network news and the morning talk shows. Dahlia Lithwick, in a Slate article about whether a family law judge can forbid a father from taking his daughter to church, summarizes the background well for those who missed it:

Joseph Reyes, an Afghanistan war veteran and second-year law student, converted to Judaism when he married Rebecca Shapiro in 2004. When they split up in 2008, Rebecca won primary custody of their daughter, and Joseph got regular visitation. The couple had allegedly agreed to raise their child Jewish, but Joseph, seeking to expose his 3-year-old to his Catholic faith, had her baptized last November. When she learned that her daughter had been baptized without her consent, Rebecca obtained a temporary restraining order in December 2009, forbidding Joseph from "exposing Ela Reyes to another religion other than the Jewish religion during his visitation." In January of this year, Reyes again took Ela to Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, with a local TV news crew in tow. His ex-wife's lawyers demanded he be held in criminal contempt -- with a maximum punishment of six months in prison.

This is indeed a fascinating story. It's also exactly the type of story that reader- and viewer-needy editors and producers dream about. Which, in some iterations, means that religion becomes merely a vehicle for discusses familial dysfunction.

The Los Angeles Times headline for a story from its Chicago sister paper referred to this parental dispute as "bickering." That's a term I usually reserve for stubborn children not parents locked in a battle over something that people have gone to war for, but maybe there is some credence. In fact, the back-and-forth-pissing-match structure of this "exclusive" from ABC News and a quote from Ela's mother actually give credence to the LAT headline:

"This is about parenting. This is not about religion."

And it probably is for this family, which justifies why so many media outlets are only focusing on this specific family dynamic and on the interesting bigger issue of whether a judge has such power as to tell one parent what religion they can and can't bring their child up in.

But there is another religious issue here that gets Anshel Pfeffer's column in the liberal Israeli daily, Haaretz:

The crux of the case ought to be the question of what is best for the child. But how can anyone even begin to argue their position with any degree of objectivity? As it is, poor Ela will probably need years of therapy to make some sense of the depth of her parents' enmity toward each other, and of how she was transformed into their religious football.

But for me, the interesting question is what influence this will have on Ela's religious decisions. As she progresses from childhood through the teenage years and into adulthood, will her mother's predominant influence cause her to see herself as one of the children of Israel, and even to take some interest in her roots? Alternatively, will the fact that Rebecca seemed intimidated by the specter of the cross - so much that she sought the court's protection against it - intrigue Ela and attract her to the forbidden church once she is old enough to make her own choices? Or will she just turn against both religions and reach the conclusion that the only real alternative is atheism?

The real issue here transcends the powers of the divorce courts, or even the debate over which parent should be allowed to determine a child's religious affiliation. The fundamental question is, what right do we have as parents to determine our children's beliefs?

That's not a question Pfeffer was prepared to answer. Nor would I imagine any family law judge. But it's a discussion I wouldn't mind reading about in the American MSM.

Please respect our Commenting Policy