One parent in a divorce case can't veto a decision by a former spouse to send their child to a religious school, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.
The judges rejected arguments by Gerald Romine that the push by his wife to have their children get a religious education interferes with his constitutional right to direct their education and upbringing. Judge Daniel Barker, writing for the unanimous court, said nothing entitles him to get his way, even if the issue is religious training.
Potentially more significant, the judges said an objecting parent even can be forced to pay the tuition at the religious school. The only real issue, Barker said, is what is in the best interest of the children.
According to court records, Romine and Paollo Jordan divorced in 2005. The court awarded the couple joint custody of the children and ordered Romine to pay child support to his ex-wife.
Their 10-year-old daughter had been attending religious school continuously for five years, both before and after the divorce; their 7-year-old son started kindergarten in the same school, after the divorce.
In 2007, Romine asked the court to modify the child support, saying he could no longer afford the tuition.
A family court judge ruled that the plan the couple agreed to when they got divorced allows each parent to raise the children in the church or faith of their choice.
But the trial judge said that school time belongs to neither parent and should be "theologically neutral time." And he agreed with Romine that putting the children in a religious school chosen by the mother interferes with his rights.
Barker said that conclusion was wrong.
"What the father's argument does not accommodate is that each parent has a constitutional right to the upbringing of his or her own child," Barker said. When there are disagreements, the judge continued, the court can step in.
The appellate court specifically rejected the father's argument that when parents disagree about religious schooling, sending the children to a secular school is a logical middle ground.
"Excluding religious schooling from all potential school options, in effect, eliminates the option of religious schooling rather than treating it neutrally," Barker wrote.
In sending the case back to the trial judge to decide where the children should go to school, the appellate court said he must consider what is in the best interests of each child. Barker said that can be determined not only by what each parent wants but also what each child wants, any interaction between each child and people at the school and the child's adjustment to the current placement.
The appeals court said if the trial judge determines that staying in the religious school is in the best interests of the children, then the cost should be factored into child support, assuming the father has the ability to pay.