Debunking Allegations of Anti-atheist Discrimination in Child Custody – Part 2

18 Aug

Staggs v. Staggs – Mississippi 2005

Read the full case here.

This case concerns a couple that divorced in 1999. At the time, they agreed that the mother would have primary physical custody of the children, with the father granted visitation.

In 2001, the mother moved to a different town for a new job. At this time, the custody agreement was modified to expand the father’s visitation privileges, including extensive visitation with the three children in the summer months.

Later in 2001, the mother was arrested for prescription forgery, after which she entered rehabilitation treatment and signed a “Recovery Contract Agreement” with the Mississippi Recovering Physicians Program. When he found out about the arrest, the father attempted to sue for custody but it was found that there was no material change of circumstances that warranted a change of custody.

In 2003, the mother remarried and moved with the three children to Maryland to live with her new husband. The father again filed for a change in custody, claiming that the children were having a hard time adjusting to the move. The mother at this time asked for an increase in child support. The court denied the father’s request for a change in custody but awarded the mother’s requested increase in child support based upon the change in financial needs of the children as well as a significant increase in the father’s income.

The 2005 case is the father’s appeal, in which he requests a change in custody only for his son as well as contesting the child support decision. He claims that his son is still having trouble and wants to come live with him. He further claims that the only reason his ex-wife asked for an increase in child support is because she and her new husband bought a $750,000 house and that it’s just not fair for him to have to pay an extra $500/month in child support when his income has only increased by $214,800/year since the divorce and the original child support judgement.

I won’t address the child support issue because it has nothing to do with religion whatsoever. Also, I think it’s ridiculous and that the father in this case is an asshole who is trying to punish his ex-wife for moving on with her life.

As far as the custody issue goes, there’s basically no evidence that religion or lack thereof had anything to do with it. Indeed, the only mention of religion at all in the case is in two paragraphs:

¶ 9. Ken asserts that he has a closer relationship with Kenny than Kenny has with Lynn. According to Ken, Kenny relies on his father for stability;  to discuss topics such as life, religion, and “what it means to be a man;” and to alleviate his worries.   Kenny testified at trial and expressed a desire to live with his father, and Ken argues that his wish should be honored.

and:

¶ 27.   Contrary to Ken’s assertions, the evidence is not overwhelming that Kenny’s problems would be solved if he lived with his father.   Kenny testified that he would miss his mother, Jeff, and Josh if he lived with his father.   Kenny stated that his mother takes good care of him.   His mother assigns chores for him and sets rules with respect to what television shows he can watch, what movies he can see, and what video games he can play.   While Ken is an agnostic and testified that religion is not important to him, Lynn testified that religion is very important to her.   While Kenny has acted reserved and guarded since moving to Maryland, Kenny behaved in the same way when he lived in Hattiesburg.   Such evidence supports a finding that there was no material change in circumstances adverse to Kenny’s well-being.

In neither case is it even remotely implied that the father’s agnosticism is the reason for his being denied custody. Indeed, it seems only to be mentioned at all because of the disagreement between the parents as to the importance of religion, and it’s not clear that this disagreement is a significant factor in the father’s decision to seek custody of his son.

In the end, the decision to leave the children in the custody of their mother hinged upon the fact that there was no compelling reason to change the situation. Basically, when parents are divorced and one parent chooses to move out of town or state, this is not considered a material change that necessitates a change in custody as the court holds that separation from either parent is disadvantageous to the children and switching custody to the non-moving parent doesn’t mitigate the ill of being separated from a parent.

While, on appeal, the father was only asking for a change in custody for his son, the court stated that it was important for the three siblings to remain together–again because there was no compelling reason to change the current situation.

Conclusion

There’s no reason to suspect that religion played any significant role in the determination in this case. It was not given as a reason for the appeal. It was not given as a reason for the father seeking custody in the first place. It was not given as a reason for the decision that the court made.

In fact, the decision that the court made seems perfectly reasonable under the circumstances described in the court documents. The father is not denied access to his children, as he presumably retains liberal visitation privileges, including long visitation during the summers, which is a pretty standard arrangement. It’s also stated in the court documents that the son is able to call his father as much and as often as he likes while living with his mother and step-father.

I suppose it could be argued that religion or lack thereof should not enter into the discussion at all in cases of child custody. However, these are issues that figure into the relationship between married parents as well as separated ones. In a marriage between people with different religious beliefs, they would generally have to come to some sort of agreement about how to raise the children, settling in all likelihood on a compromise that is best for the child and most fair to each parent.

When separated parents take their issues to court, they are asking the court to be a mediator in situations where they are unable to come to agreement between themselves. It’s my opinion that in the event that religious disagreements are brought to court it’s appropriate for the court to institute a solution to the problem where the parents are unable or unwilling to do so on their own. As long as the rights of both parents are respected, this would not be problematic. Fortunately, this case is not a case where religion was a central issue, but there will be a couple of cases I discuss later where I will discuss the opinion I stated here i more depth.

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