Court Scrutinizes Custodial Parent’s Decision to Send Daughter to Catholic High School

A New Jersey man of the Jewish faith sought to enjoin his ex wife from enrolling their teenage daughter in a Catholic high school. Phillips v. Emerson, No. A-0737-12T2 (App. Div. June 5, 2013). The couple was divorced in November of 2002 and share joint legal custody of four unemancipated children. Legal custody refers to decisions concerning the major issues related to health, education and welfare of the children. In Phillips, the Appellate Division held that “[s]electing a child’s school and exposing the child to a particular faith community are major decisions.”

Throughout the course of the parties’ marriage, neither parent was particularly religious, but the father identified with his Jewish faith and celebrated certain Jewish holidays, while the mother identified with the Christian faith and celebrated certain Christian holidays. The father contended that it was not until his ex wife’s remarriage that the mother showed an interest in joining the Catholic faith. He feared that the child’s enrollment in Catholic school would alienate him from his daughter “through her acceptance of a faith foreign to his beliefs.” The trial court denied his application, but the appellate division reversed and remanded for a plenary hearing as to whether enrollment in Catholic school was in the best interests of the child, finding that there was insufficient evidence to determine the application without testimony and the introduction of evidence.

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