By Mike Stetzer
The ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals may have added a new wrinkle to the fabric of child support and child custody law, but kept to the overall pattern that has guided divorce court rulings for years: the best interest of the child remains the fundamental issue. Along the way, the case touched on issues of religious freedom, parental rights and the continual problem of achieving compromise during divorce when two parties have different notions about just what the best interest of the child demands.
Gerald Romine and Paollo Jordan divorced in 2005. At that time, their daughter, age 10, had been attending religious school for years. Following the divorce, their son, age 7, also began attending the school. Initially, Romine agreed to joint child custody and to pay child support, including educational expenses.
Two years later, in 2007, Romine asked the divorce court to modify child support, stating that he could not afford the high cost of tuition.
According to the family court judge who initially ruled on the case, the couple had agreed to a parenting plan that allowed each parent to raise the children in the church or faith of their choice, essentially refusing to let Romine out of school tuition responsibilities.
When the case went to trial, another judge ruled that school time should not be included in a custody arrangement, and that this time should be "theologically neutral." The trial judge agreed with Romine’s claim that the mother’s decision to continue to enroll the children in a religious school over his objections interfered with his rights.
In the appellate ruling, Justice Daniel Barker, speaking for the unanimous majority, disagreed with the trial judge’s conclusion.
"What the father’s argument does not accommodate is that each parent has a constitutional right to the upbringing of his or her own child."
According to the appeals court, the family court system should step in to broker compromise arrangements when both parents cannot agree on a plan.
Furthermore, the ruling said, "Excluding religious schooling from all potential school options, in effect, eliminates the option of religious schooling rather than treating it neutrally."
Essentially, when Ms. Jordan wishes to send her children to a religious school, secular school does not constitute a compromise.
The case has been sent back to the trial judge, with instructions that he decide where the children should attend school. The court must consider the best interests of each child, the ruling stated. Barker said that this can be achieved by considering the wants of the parent, wants of the child and the children’s adjustment to their current school and interactions with others.
Money remains at the center of the dispute, and the appeals court ruled that if the trial judge decides the children should remain in their current school, Mr. Romine should remain responsible for part of the costs, as a component of his larger child support payments. This is assuming that he has the ability to pay them.
Source: East Valley Tribune