Grandparents Insistence On Involving A Child In Their Religion Leads To Conflict With Mother

Written on behalf of Arbesman Hamilton LLP

In most situations it’s heartwarming when grandparents want to spend time with their grandchildren. However, in a recent case before the Provincial Court of British Columbia, the way in which two grandparents wanted to spend time with their grandchild was a matter of dispute.

The grandparents’ involvement with the child

The grandparents of the child, who was four-years-old at the time of the trial, brought an application to the court seeking specified unsupervised contact with the child. The grandparents’ son, who was the child’s father, was not involved in the child’s life, seeing her irregularly and paying no child support. Regardless of their son’s lack of involvement, the grandparents were seeking unsupervised contact two days and one night every weekend as well as holidays and school breaks. This request became an issue because of the grandparents’ religious beliefs. They are devout Jehova’s Witnesses, and they wanted to involve the child in their religion, something the mother was in opposition to.

The grandparents found out from the father that he was to have a baby, but did not share with them the mother’s name or address. Despite this, the grandparents were able to locate the mother, who felt it was important that they have a relationship with the child. They had been active participants in the child’s life in the years leading up to the trial, looking after her while the mother worked.

Issues between the mother and the grandparents

There were a few contentious issues between the parties, including the grandparents’ insistence that the child refer to them as “Poppa” and “Momma” instead of “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” However, the most contentious issue was whether or not the child should continue to be exposed to the grandparents’ religion.

The grandparents had been taking the child to services as their church since she was a baby. They didn’t ask the mother permission to do so, and the mother was not happy about this, though she didn’t say anything to them. In December 2013 the mother let the grandparents know how she felt, and asked them to stop taking her to service, altering their days of contact to those that did not include going to service. Despite this request, the mother learned the grandparents had taken the child to service in March 2014. The grandmother said she took the child at the child’s request. As a result of this, the mother stopped allowing the grandparents to have contact with the child on Sundays. One month later, the mother learned the grandparents had again taken the child to service. Following this, the mother stopped allowing the child to spend nights at the grandparents’ home, telling them they could only visit at the mother’s house. The grandparents responded by filing an application for unsupervised access.

What the law says

Section 40 of Ontario’s Family Law Act states that only a guardian may have parental responsibilities for a child. Such responsibilities include making decisions respecting the child’s religious and spiritual upbringing. The grandparents argued their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) were being violated in that they had a right to practice their religion, which includes expressing it to the child. The judge determined it not to be a Charter case, stating “No one is questioning the (grandparents’) right to practice their religion. This dispute arises from the applicants’ refusal to accept that they have no say in the religious and spiritual upbringing of (the child). They are not guardians and they do not have any parental responsibilities.” In its decision, the court laid out how it arrived at its decision, writing:

  1. (The mother) has a responsibility to look after the best interests of (the child). That responsibility includes making decisions about religion.

  2. The court should not interfere with a guardian’s decision about religion unless there is evidence, as opposed to simply a different viewpoint, that the guardian’s decision about religion is not in (the child’s) best interest.

  3. Where the guardian has made a reasonable decision about the (child’s) exposure to religion, the court should not interfere with that decision regardless of whether that decision reflects the views of the grandparents, society, or the court. The court’s reluctance to interfere with (the mother’s) decision on religion is neither an endorsement of her views nor a condemnation of the grandparents’ views.

  4. It is not in the best interests of (the child) to be placed into circumstances of real conflict between her mother and her paternal grandparents.

  5. When there are two or more guardians sharing parental responsibilities who have differing religious views, the court will often support the child being exposed to each religion involved. However, when as in this case, the guardian(s) have a different religious view than a non-guardian, the court will respect the decision of the guardian(s).

  6. It is in (the child’s) best interest to maintain contact with her grandparents provided that the conflict over religion does not undermine the parental decisions of (the mother).

The court granted the grandparents one day of access per month at the mother’s house.

The team of lawyers at Arbesman Hamilton LLP take a compassionate and experienced approach to issues involving family and children, including divorce, separation, custody & access, and support. We provide our clients with outstanding legal service, ensuring their rights are protected throughout the legal process, while keeping their ultimate goals foremost in mind. Please feel free to contact us online or at 416-481-5604 to schedule a consultation today.