High Court gives guidance on the proper approach to questions of religious upbringing

31st January 2012

Frances Judd QC and Margaret Styles represented the father and child respectively in the recent case of Re N (a child – Religion – Jehovah’s Witnesses) [2011] EWHC B26 (Fam)


One of several issues between the parents was how far the child should be involved in the practice of the Mother’s religion.  HHJ Bellamy, sitting in the High Court, set out general principles to guide the Court in its approach to deciding questions of religious upbringing:


  1. “Parental responsibility is joint and equal. Neither parent has a predominant right to choose a child's religious upbringing.
  2. Where parents follow different religions and those religions are both socially acceptable the child should have the opportunity to learn about and experience both religions.
  3. A parent's right to enable her child to learn about and experience his or her religion is not an unconfined right. Where the practice of that religion involves a lifestyle which conflicts with the lifestyle of the other parent and the court is satisfied that that conflict has had or may in the future have an impact on the child's welfare the court is entitled to restrict the child's involvement in those practices.
  4. Restrictions imposed for welfare reasons do not necessarily amount to a breach of that parent's right to follow the beliefs and practices of his or her religion provided that any restriction imposed is justified by the findings made by the court and proportionate.
  5. In determining such an issue, as in the determination of any other question relating to the upbringing of the child, the child's welfare is the court's paramount consideration.”


Whilst the Judge decided that in many respects each parent should be allowed to involve the child in their own religious activities when the child was with them (one restriction being on the Mother taking the child on door-to-door ministry), ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’ by each parent in their religion was highlighted as something with a particular potential to cause feelings of conflict within the child.  The Judge therefore found it proportionate and in the child’s best interests to restrict the parents’ rights to instruct or ‘give lessons’ in their beliefs [88-91].


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