Religious Parents Who Divorce

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Information

in The Contested Place of Religion in Family Law 234 (Robin Fretwell Wilson ed., 2018).


Even though adherence to organized religion is becoming less common for Americans, religion remains important for many in the United States. This chapter sets out to show some of the effects of religion on a particular group of vulnerable Americans – those going through the divorce process, as they self-identify, not through surveys but through divorce pleadings and parenting agreements. While some will rely more on faith during such difficult times, whatever stigma around divorce remains for divorcing parents may cause others to withdraw from church affiliation, particularly when they seek to remarry. Other work has shown that when both spouses are similarly religious, they are less likely to divorce. Of course, some couples quarrel about religion during their marriages, and differences either in religiosity or religious preference may add to the discord in the marriage that eventually culminates in divorce. A prior study based upon data from Iowa showed that when religious couples did divorce, they tended to, more than others, indicate fault-based reasons for the divorce, even when a fault basis could not be used to any legal advantage, and to litigate rather than settle divorce-related issues.

This chapter draws upon divorce pleadings and other records to show how indications of religion, or disaffiliation, that appear in parenting agreements and orders affect the course of the divorce proceedings and any legal activities over the five years following the divorce filing. Some of the apparent findings are normative, but most are merely descriptive and some may be correlative rather than caused by the indicated concern about religion. While parenting plans are accepted by courts only when they are in the best interests of the child, at least in theory, the child’s independent religious needs were never mentioned in the files analyzed for this chapter. Instead the parents’ religious practices and affiliation drove the court’s understanding of what the couple could achieve for their children following dissolution. The data is consistent with more religious parents trying to make the best of what they understand is not ideal for their children.