Religious practices and freedoms – how involved should the Court be?
Religious practices – In a recent case, the mother raised her concerns that the father would expose the child to a religious “cult” involved in serious misconduct allegations regarding its leader:
- The mother regards the beliefs and practices of the ashram which the father attends as extreme, by which I infer she means outside the realm of the Hindu religion as practiced by herself and the father growing up in their respective families.
- Elements relating to spiritual healing, powers of the mind to move objects, and other matters were identified in submissions, but religions tend to have beliefs and practices which are inexplicable to non-believers.
- The mother has raised concerns that a vegan or vegetarian diet for the child, part of the father’s practice, was a worry to her.
- Again, fasting and feasting, prohibition on eating certain foods such as beef or pork, are common to many world religions. It is not a matter for the Court to analyse any particular faith but simply to decide whether the adherence of a parent to that faith represents a risk to that child.
- The mother considers that the subject child will be put at risk of unacceptable harm or abuse if she spent unsupervised time, or even supervised time for long periods, in ashrams of this type. I infer that the mother fears that her daughter will become indoctrinated and, as a consequence, unable to defend herself against indefensible practices. The mother is fearful that the child will also be defenceless against the strongly held beliefs of the father because she, the mother, will no longer be present as a place of safety and, from her perspective, as a rational repository of a different point of view.
- It is understandable the parents are genuinely divided over this aspect of their daughter’s life.
- Each party has been surprised and disappointed. For the mother, that the father has been drawn into something she regards as false, contrived and even criminal. There were newspaper articles annexed to her affidavit raising allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr G against members of his congregation. There were other aspects of the ashram criticised in a similar way. For the father, that the mother would not even consider, when she was well enough to do it, coming to the ashram to see for herself what it was like. The father also held the hopeful belief that the mother’s health would be improved by the spiritual healing practices of the ashram.
- The Court should not assume that any particular beliefs are true nor should it prefer one religion to another or religious belief over non-belief in any particular religion. Religion becomes relevant because of its influence on behaviour of parents and other carers. Where the religious beliefs of a person require the person to adhere to an unusual lifestyle or approach to child rearing, the person’s behaviour may well be relevant to the child’s welfare. Accordingly, there is a balance for the Court between the welfare of the child and neutrality as to different religious views and practices.
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