Religious Wars in Divorce


While Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise may well be the most high-profile divorcing couple to disagree over religion, they are certainly not alone. The religion they were respectively fighting for and against, Scientology, is not considered mainstream and is, in fact, highly controversial.

The questions that many have about that particular religion may have helped Ms. Holmes, who appears to have saved her daughter from it by negotiating a sole custody agreement. Some of the less appealing aspects of Scientology are that it reportedly separates parents from children and formally “shuns” non-believers. It is those very practices that might lead a court to lose sympathy and allow a court to rule for the non-Scientology parent based, not on religious grounds, but to spare a child from parental alienation.

While none of us will ever know all the facts and factors that caused it, the children adopted by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman appear to have ended up mostly with him. It seems that Katie Holmes, like most of us, assumed Scientology was at least one of the factors and strategized successfully to not have that happen to her family.

Separation of Church and State

Except in cases where a belief system might arguably endanger a parent child relationship or the child itself, courts attempt to be “religion neutral” and to simply follow the religious behaviors and patterns of the family that existed prior to a divorce. Therefore, if one parent always took the child to any mainstream church and the other did not, they will each be free to do whatever they want with that child on his or her own weekend.

If they had battling churches or religions, however, then the courtroom drama can escalate and we have seen those often enough in Illinois. Baptisms versus Bar Mitzvahs and which religious school should children attend pose tough questions when deeply held fundamental religious differences are at stake. The ironic thing is that during a break-up, each parent tends to become more religious and more invested in his or her own faith than ever they were when they were together, but then again that is the nature of divorce.

What the courts struggle with in those cases is the fact they are not there to “establish” any religion, and therefore again the judges will try to mirror to the extent possible whatever compromises and religious practices the parents had engaged in prior to the irreconcilable breakdown of the marriage.

If they celebrated and honored both sets of religious holidays, the holidays will probably be allocated along religious lines to each of them to observe his or her own faith with the children. If one or the other parent had pledged or contracted or otherwise agreed to raise the child or children in a certain religion, they will hopefully continue to honor that agreement, especially if the children are already established in those practices, but the court will not order it. Courts will not punish parents who do not believe in God, nor will they “advance” religion generally, or any specific religion.

Two Principles

As a family law attorney, I have long observed two principles: first of all, each parent tends to believe that his or her religion is the true one and that “if God is on my side, how can I be wrong?”; secondly, the parents, lawyers and the courts all must be very careful in these cases, or else in the name of love and the name of God, children’s lives can be torn apart.

Avoiding a scorched-earth kind of religious war seems to have been one of the significant goals in the quick Tom-Kat settlement. They apparently decided that religion is such a personal decision that it was better to compromise privately than to battle publicly.

Their joint statement regarding their desire “to keep matters affecting our family private and express our respect for each other’s commitment to each of our respective beliefs…” could become the inspiration for so many other couples struggling over spiritual differences in a divorce.

They have demonstrated, even for a high-profile couple with extremely divergent religious beliefs, it is possible to avoid a religious war for the sake of a child.


About Gemma Allen

Gemma Allen is a partner in Ladden & Allen, Chartered, and has practiced family law for most of her career. Ms. Allen has written more than 50 articles and lectured on topics that include divorce, child support, maintenance, mediation, cohabitation, women and money, and reconciliation. She co-authored The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know Before Marrying, Moving In, or Moving On! and helps you navigate modern relationships in “Relationship Gems.”