Florida Courts have historically protected a parent’s right to practice their religious beliefs with their children no matter how unconventional and regardless of the other parent’s objection.In the matter of Koch v. Koch, 41 Fla. L. Weekly (Fla. 1st DCA 2016), the trial court was AFFIRMED for prohibiting the father from discussing “ANY religious matters during visitation with his children”.
The Constitutional limitation to protect a parent’s right to expose their children to their religious beliefs were clearly established in Rogers v. Rogers, 490 So. 2d 1017 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986) where the Appellate Court concluded; “In family law proceedings, a court may not restrict a post-dissolution parent’s religious beliefs, no matter how unconventional.
In 2014, the First District provided some level of protection for children if the exposure to the parent’s religion was harmful by concluding “restrictions upon a noncustodial parent’s right to expose his or her child to his or her religious beliefs have consistently been overturned in the absence of clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the child.” Pierson v, Pierson, 143 So.3d 1201 (Fla 1st DCA 2014).
And then came Michael Koch.
Mr. Koch was seemingly unable to restrain himself from filling his admonishments to his children with threats of damnation; further, he would demonize the children’s mother to them, causing the children anxiety and emotional distress severe enough to qualify as abuse.
As a result the Court prohibited Mr. Koch from any religious discussions with his children. Mr. Koch appealed, citing his constitution right to practice his religion.
In response the Court created a clear distinction between “religious beliefs” from “religiously motivated behavior with an impact on children”. This is not as fine a line as one may think. A parent simply cannot use the cloak of religion as an excuse to do damage to their children. The Courts have made that clear.
Despite the tendencies for Courts not to interfere in litigants’ religious practices, Koch makes it clear the trial court has the ability to protect the children and prohibit certain religious behaviors so long as there is a clear, affirmative showing the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the children.
Eddie Stephens is a partner in Ward Damon located in West Palm Beach, FL. Mr. Stephens was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1997 and is Board Certified in Family and Marital Law. After starting his career as an attorney for the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office, Stephens has developed a successful family law practice focused on highly disputed divorces. Through hundreds of hearings and dozens of trials, Stephens has honed his practice by making straightforward arguments that bring opposing sides closer together in order to find a successful resolution.