The Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise divorce highlights the impact of religion on child custody decisions. Courts prefer to grant joint custody to parents. But sometimes a religious practice gives a court pause.
Of course, it's unconstitutional to base a custody decision on religion. The First Amendment makes that clear. But religious practices are fair game, especially when it comes to medical treatment for a child.
There's quite a bit of ignorance about what specific religions forbid. Along with the Scientologists, the usual suspects include Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses. The stances of the three on medicine are often lumped together, but they are different.
- Scientologists believe in medical treatment for physical diseases. They reject the concept of mental illness and proscribe medicines such as anti-depressants.
- Christian Scientists believe in medical treatment, but Christian Scientists are urged to "pray away" the disease before resorting to medical care.
- Jehovah's Witnesses embrace medical treatment as needed, but refuse blood transfusions and organ transplants.
Tom Cruise is not going to lose custody of his daughter for refusing to agree to blood transfusions for her because Scientology does not prohibit blood transfusions. Unless the child is in need of psychiatric treatment now, or in the foreseeable future, a refusal to recognize mental conditions as illnesses won't hurt his custody chances, either.
Most of us would agree that Scientologists have some weird beliefs - did you know, for example, that Scientologists are reincarnated aliens who used to live on other planets? - but beliefs like these will have little impact on a custody decision. Only a religious practice that endangers a child will merit attention in court.