The Third Department, reversing (modifying) Family Court, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Reynolds Fitzgerald, over a partial concurrence and partial dissent, determined Family Court’s directives with respect to religion in this custody case should be vacated:
While a court may consider religion as a factor in determining the best interests of a child in custody disputes, “it alone may not be the determinative factor” (Aldous v Aldous, 99 AD2d 197 …). Additionally, cases that do consider religion as a factor generally fall into three separate categories: (1) when a child has developed actual religious ties to a specific religion and one parent is better able to serve those needs; (2) a religious belief violates a state statute; and (3) when a religious belief poses a threat to the child’s well-being … . This standard, enunciated in 1984, continues to be followed … .
None of the three categories outlined in Aldous are applicable to the case before us. The July 2020 consent order granted the parties joint legal custody with equal parenting time. Notably, no reference is made to religion in the custody order. At the time the petitions were filed, the child was not quite two years old and, as such, not of an age so as to allow him to have developed actual religious ties to a specific religion. Nor does the record reveal that the father’s religious beliefs violated a state statute or threatened the child’s well-being. As a result, Family Court improperly intervened in the parties’ religious dispute … . Thus, the court’s directives to the parties that neither parent shall permit the child to attend religious services or instruction until an agreement between the parties is reached on this issue, to address the issue of religion while participating in court-ordered coparenting counseling, and that a failure to reach an agreement with regard to religion will — after completing the court-ordered number of coparenting sessions — constitute a change in circumstances for purposes of modification, were issued in error and should be vacated. Matter of Joseph XX. v Jah-Rai YY., 2024 NY Slip Op 00950, Third Dept 2-22-24
Practice Point: The religious directives issued by Family Court in this custody case were outside the three “best interests of a child” categories outlined in the controlling case, Aldous v Aldous, i.e., “(1) when a child has developed actual religious ties to a specific religion and one parent is better able to serve those needs; (2) a religious belief violates a state statute; and (3) when a religious belief poses a threat to the child’s well-being.”