Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Divorcing couple war over child's religion

Rebecca Reyes opened an e-mail from her estranged husband in November to learn to her shock that he had their 3-year-old daughter baptized in the Catholic Church even though she said the couple, in happier times, had agreed to raise her in the Jewish faith.

What happened over the next few months brought the couple's private battles into the open and raises questions about how far the court system can — or should — go in dictating what faith separated parents teach their children.

After the unannounced baptism, a Cook County Circuit Court judge took the unusual step of temporarily barring Reyes' husband, Joseph, from exposing their child to any religion other than Judaism. But Joseph Reyes then allegedly defied the order by taking his daughter to Mass at Holy Name Cathedral — with a television news crew in tow.

The wife's lawyers blasted Joseph Reyes' defiance and demanded he be held in criminal contempt, a charge that carries a maximum punishment of six months in jail if convicted.

A new judge brought into the case Tuesday at the father's request said she will set a date later for a trial on the contempt allegations.

The couple married in October 2004 but split about four years later. The divorce has raged on since 2008. Rebecca Reyes complained of "extreme and repeated mental cruelty" by her husband, court records show, while he alleged that she was "emotionally abusive" and had an affair.

A psychologist who concluded that Joseph Reyes suffered from a personality disorder recommended he be monitored while visiting his daughter, but after another psychologist weighed in, the court allowed the father to care for her without supervision every other weekend and one weeknight.

Rebecca Reyes was granted full custody last month, but the divorce battle continues.

In a sworn statement in the divorce, Rebecca Reyes said her husband, raised a Catholic, had converted to Judaism after their marriage and had agreed to raise their daughter in the Jewish faith. He denies he agreed to raise her only in the Jewish faith.

Her lawyers argue that the daughter, who attends a Jewish preschool, would "suffer confusion to her emotional detriment" as a result of what they called Joseph Reyes' "malicious" actions.

"I am upset that Joseph would take such an action so counter to (my daughter's) Jewish religious education and upbringing without any prior discussion, consultation or notification to me," she said in the affidavit.

Jeffery Leving, a divorce lawyer who specializes in fathers' rights, said he would recommend that Joseph Reyes convert back to Catholicism if he wanted to expose his daughter to his faith without further incurring the judge's wrath. He also questioned whether excluding his estranged wife from religious decisions and inviting the news media to watch him defy a judge's order was truly "in the best interest of the child or is this a PR circus?"

"This is parental war," Leving said. "The parents are using the child as a tool of revenge."

Joseph Reyes, a second-year student at John Marshall Law School, said that despite the judge's order, he decided to take his daughter to a Catholic church one Sunday after she had asked to go.

Joseph Reyes' lawyer, Joel Brodsky, who has gained attention in recent months defending Drew Peterson in a sensational murder case, said every parent has a right to take their child to their place of worship "as long as it is not a harm to the child."

"I cannot see how taking a child to a baptism or church could ever be a harm to a child," he said.

While many divorce proceedings involving interfaith couples devolve into bitter feuds over religion, Emily Buss, a law professor at the University of Chicago, called the order to temporarily limit the child to Judaism "striking."

"The idea is we change religious views — that is what religious freedom includes," Buss said. "Even if (one) parent has more authority in the form of more custody, the other parent can (usually) … still expose the child to his or her religion even if it was not the religious practices within the family when it was intact."

Carlton Marcyan, a senior partner with the divorce specialty firm Schiller, DuCanto & Fleck, said courts don't normally "like to get immersed in religious issues."

"You have a very young child here. A 3-year-old is not going to know whether she's at a Catholic church or a synagogue," Marcyan said.

On Tuesday, Brodsky succeeded in transferring the contempt matter to Judge Elizabeth Loredo-Rivera. Brodsky said he didn't want Judge Edward Jordan, who had temporarily barred the couple's daughter from attending Catholic services, ruling further on the case.

Tribune reporter Jeff Coen also contributed to this report.

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