Interfaith divorce tough on kids

December 23, 1997|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- My young friend was barely 8 when she figured out the fine points of her family's interfaith holiday. ''On Christmas,'' explained the young theologian, ''they put the presents under the tree. On Hanukkah, they don't have a tree, so they put the presents on the table.''

Not every child is, of course, quite that comfortable with different traditions. This season, that begins with a celebration of Buddha's enlightenment on Dec. 8 and ends with the first day of Ramadan on Dec. 30, is enough to rachet up the stress for a growing number of children.

But if interfaith marriage can be tough on kids, it's nothing compared to interfaith divorce.

Spiritual paths

Consider the marital remains of Barbara and Jeffrey Kendall, a Massachusetts couple who went down their separate spiritual paths before they irrevocably split. Jeffrey, a nominal Catholic when they met, became a fundamentalist Christian. Barbara, a mildly observant Jew became Orthodox.

For the three children of divorce, this meant observing the Jewish Sabbath in one household and being told to break it in another. It meant going to a synagogue with their mother and to church with their father -- a church that said anyone who doesn't accept Jesus is ''damned to go to hell.'' And for the eldest, it meant growing payes -- religious locks of hair -- under his mother's eye, and losing them to his father's scissors.

The Kendalls' matter of church, state and children, inevitably ended up with its legal Judgment Day. This month, the highest court in the state upheld a ruling that limits the father's freedom to proffer his religion. In the ''best interests of the children,'' this father may not, among other things, bring these children to his church.

In essence, the mother was awarded something common zTC enough these days to have its own name: spiritual custody.

Let us remember that Ariel, 9, Moriah, 6, and Rebekah, 4, had been raised in the Jewish tradition under a prenuptial agreement between the Kendalls. Two of the kids are now old enough to identify themselves as Jews.

Furthermore, the courts already limit parents' religious rights in the ''best interests of the children.'' The child of a Jehovah's Witness, for example, may be given a blood transfusion despite the religious objections of her parents.

But what is intriguing in the matter of spiritual custody is how the courts treat a conflict involving that awesome triumvirate in any child's life: Mom, Dad and God. What happens when a family's religious conflicts end up in a secular courtroom?

In cases like the Kendalls, religion may be only another weapon that angry ex-husbands and wives use to keep the post-marital wars waging. On the other hand, both parents may fervently believe they are wrestling over something grander than visitation rights -- their children's salvation. Jeffrey Kendall says he will ''never stop trying to save his children.''

In our system of government, however, the state is required to stay neutral to religion. The courts cannot determine the one true path to God or even godlessness.

As Martha Minow, a family law professor at Harvard and author of ''Not Only For Myself'' says, ''In a society that separates church and state, the court can't make an evaluation of which religion is better for kids. So all that is left is for the courts to protect children physically or psychologically.''

Parents may define a child's best interest in the condition of his soul. But the law can only assess it in the condition of his psyche.

In the end, the Massachusetts court agreed that the children were being ''substantively harmed'' in the duel over their salvation. They ruled that neither parent may use religion to alienate the children from the other. The court allowed the father to have the children with him at family events on Christmas and Easter. But they limited his religious rights when they seriously disturbed the children who were raised and now identified with their mother's tradition.

Jeffrey Kendall now charges that the judges chose Judaism over Christianity. But in fact, they chose peace over war.

It is a shame that the Kendalls, each at the extreme of their religious spectrum, were incapable of joint spiritual custody. But in Ms. Minow's succinct phrase, ''Children should not be caught in religious wars.'' This is one value that's kept our country out of a whole lot of trouble.

Is ''peace on earth'' too ecumenical a December sentiment for the Kendalls? Or just too hopeful? In any case, it's a fine seasonal greeting for a country that still prefers holidays to holy wars.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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