Speak Directly To a Lawyer Now

1300 038 223
Open 7am - Midnight, 7 days
Or have our lawyers call you:
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Religion in Parenting Matters

In Australia, the law recognises religious freedom and parents may bring up their children according to any religious belief system that does not contravene Australian law. During a relationship (whether marriage or de facto), parents are usually able to agree on the upbringing of their child, the type of school the child should attend, and any faith that they should follow. However, it is not unusual for separated parents to have different views about religion and for this to become a contentious issue in family law disputes. When such issues cannot be resolved privately, the decision may have to be made by the Federal Circuit and Family Court (or the Family Court of Western Australia). This page deals with religion in parenting matters.

The Court’s Approach to Religion in Parenting Matters

According to the principles developed in Elspeth v Peter [2006], it is not proper for any Australian court to prefer one religion over another (or over no faith at all). In deciding the religious practices of a child, the court will respect the culture of the parents but will ultimately privilege the best interests of the child as the most important factor. According to the court in Zenere & Malik and Ors [2018], religion is a relevant factor in family law matters because it influences the behaviour of the parents and potentially impacts the children’s welfare. The court must consider the specific circumstances in each case and try to understand how the practice of a particular religion will impact the child, as well as their relationship with their parents and their community.

Parental Responsibility

Under the Family Law Act 1975, the court issues Parenting Orders that specify the amount of parenting responsibility that each parent will exercise, as well as practical considerations such as where the child should reside, how much time they should spend with each parent, and other matters. With shared parental responsibility, a parent must consult with the other parent about major long-term decisions (issues such as education, health, and religion) and make a genuine attempt to reach a joint decision. This is the case even if the children rarely spend time with the other parent. When religion is an important issue for parents, the court has the power to make an order that determines the religious practices of a child under the age of eighteen.

When Parents Practice Different Religions

When parents have different beliefs, the court typically takes the view that a child should be exposed to both faiths, with the idea that they can eventually make their own choice. However, the court will intervene to prevent a child from participating in any religion if there is evidence that the practice harms the child’s well-being. For example, the court has issued an injunction to stop a parent from exposing their child to their new religion because it would cause “considerable confusion” to the child. Conversely, in Zenere & Malik and Ors [2018], the court declined to make an order restraining the father from exposing the child to Hinduism, on the grounds that the father was otherwise an appropriate primary carer of the child and was capable of exposing his child to the religion appropriately.

In most cases, the court will be reluctant to make an order that prevents a child from participating in a religious community that has been part of their life before the separation of their parents. In Howell & Howell [2012], for instance, both of the parents of a nine-year-old were part of a religion prior to the breakdown of the relationship. The mother left both the relationship and the religion after deciding that the organisation was, in fact, a cult. The father, who continued to live in the religious centre, rejected this characterisation and wanted the child to have the opportunity to choose to participate in the religion. The mother claimed that the child was isolated from society because of her involvement in the faith, and that it was not in the child’s best interests to continue to participate. In this case, the court ultimately ordered that the parents should have equal shared parental responsibility, which for practical purposes would allow the child to continue to participate in the religion. However, the court also ordered that the father should not have parental responsibility when it came to the child’s health, because of the father’s religion’s stance against modern medicine, including immunisation. The judge found that it was in the child’s best interests for the mother to have sole parental responsibility over this aspect of their upbringing because of the potential for harm given the father’s religious beliefs.

Navigating a co-parenting relationship often requires respect and compromise, especially when it comes to deeply personal issues, such as religion. It is always better for parents to reach an agreement privately without recourse to a court proceeding. However, if necessary, our experienced team at Armstrong Legal can help you understand the legal implications. Please contact or call 1300 038 223 for any legal assistance.

Dr Nicola Bowes

This article was written by Dr Nicola Bowes

Dr Nicola Bowes holds a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours from the University of Tasmania, a Bachelor of Laws with first class honours from the Queensland University of Technology, and a PhD from The University of Queensland. After a decade working in higher education, Nicola joined Armstrong Legal in 2020.

Legal Hotline
Open 7am - Midnight, 7 Days
Call 1300 038 223