Having custody encompasses a wide range of parental rights, including the right to participate in decisions pertaining to your child's well-being. Choosing a school is undoubtedly one of the most important decisions you will make for your child, and there are quite a few types of choose from. While public education has expanded to include alternates such as charter schools and home schooling, many parents still consider religious education such as Catholic school or Yeshiva.
Religious education may seem like a fundamental right, since religious freedom is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Still, how does the court balance the need to respect a parent's religious beliefs with the need to decide what's in the child's best interests? For the New Jersey courts, the answer — as vague as it may be -- can be found in cases like Rothstein v. Warschawski. In Rothstein, the mother had primary custody of the son, who she had enrolled in an Orthodox Jewish day school. The parties' divorce agreement stated that they would split the cost of private/ religious schooling 50/50, and they would both have an equal say in the choice of school.
Some years after the divorce, Warschawski fought to have his son removed from the school, stating that it lacked accreditation from a secular education association. While the Orthodox school was accredited by a Hebrew organization, most colleges and employers will only accept diplomas with accreditation from secular entities such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. This was an important consideration for the courts, who have clearly recognized the importance of a college education in cases like Newburgh v. Arrigo.
The trial court ruled that the son should be placed in an "adequately accredited educational institution", although it did stress that both parties must agree on the choice of school. Rothstein appealed the decision, but the appeals court rejected her argument that she had the ultimate choice in schooling as the child's primary custodian. First, it was written into the divorce agreement that both parties have equal say in their son's education. Second, both parents retain legal custody, which under New Jersey law entitles both parties to have a say in decisions pertaining to their son's welfare.
With these considerations in mind, the appeals court ruled that a decision must be based solely on the child's best interests. Instead of issuing a direct order, they remanded the case back to the trial court, who had in their assessment, failed to explain why it was best for the child to attend an MSACS-accredited school. It was also recommended that the trial court consider factors such as the son's peer relationships and community attachments. While this ruling sounds an attempt to avoid decisions involving religion, it does point out the need to stick to the best interest principle in cases involving
children. For more information on your custody rights and legal options, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.