Religion is not a childish choice

By Deborah Levy, August 19, 2012
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As a mother of two daughters aged 21 and 17, I sometimes cast my mind back to the things they so desperately wanted when they were 10. Among their many requests, I recall my eldest pleading to leave choir and my youngest demanding more ear piercings.

Difficult though it was, I stood firm and did not relent to their every wish. With that in mind, I seriously question whether a 10-year-old is able to make a considered decision about their religion.

The case of the Jewish girl who decided she wanted to be baptised cannot have escaped readers' notice. Both parents and grandparents were Jewish, although the child had had little Jewish education. The divorced couple shared the care of their daughter, from one week to the next. The father converted to Christianity and, after returning from a Christian festival, the daughter told the mother she wished to be baptised. In response, the mother applied for a court order forbidding the father from arranging the baptism. But after a succession of hearings, a judge ruled against her.

In the 1986 case of Gillick v West Norfolk Area Health Authority, a mother took her local authority to court in an attempt to stop doctors from giving the contraceptive pill to under 16-year-olds without parental consent. The case introduced the concept of the "Gillick competent" child, one who was of sufficient age, intelligence and understanding to make their own decisions.

The girl said she wished to be baptised

Section 1(3) of the Children Act 1989 contains the "welfare checklist" - factors that courts are required to consider when assessing what is in the best interests of a child. While a child's wishes and feelings must be taken into account and considered in the light of their age and understanding, so too must the likely effect of any change in the child's circumstances, along with their emotional and educational needs.

In a 2011 case, a court considered a father's application to restrict the extent to which the mother involved the child in her religion (she was a Jehovah's Witness) and the principles to be applied in cases concerning religious upbringing.The judge said: "Both parents need to… encourage him to continue valuing what each of them has to offer". It strikes me as surprising that the judge in the case of the Jewish girl did not refuse the baptism at this stage in order to leave her, as much as she is able, to experience both religions, rather than choose one at the expense of the other.

In Jewish law, a girl is considered to reach halachic adulthood at 12, when she marks her batmitzvah. Yet in the United States - often thought to be ahead of the rest of the world - the more liberal confirmation ceremonies take place from age 16 to 18, in the belief that at this age they are better equipped to affirm their Jewish identity.

Judaism is matrilineal, so the girl will always be considered halachically Jewish. Yet in many ways, the judge endorsed a decision that could be seen as valuing the father and his religion over the mother and hers, and so to an extent rejecting the mother in general.

Long-term, this could have unforeseen consequences for the child. As a society, we have grown to expect instant gratification. This is hardly a principle to encourage in a child - yet in approving her perceived urgency to convert, this is exactly what has been done.

I have little doubt that this girl appeared confident in articulating her wishes, as I know full well that many girls of that age are. But how can we be sure that she fully understood the change she was making? My eldest is now eternally grateful that she did not leave choir, having made lifelong friends, while my youngest is pleased not to be left with unwanted piercings. Young children believe they have all the answers, but age and life experience bring wisdom and maturity - something that is difficult to appreciate when you are 10 - particularly in relation to a matter as far-reaching as religion.

Had the court refused the baptism for the time being, it would have allowed her to process her wishes and feelings, so that she could commit to her choice as an adult. By upholding the girl's autonomy, the judge has surely displaced the well-known adage that "mother knows best".

Deborah Levy is a partner at WGS Solicitors

Last updated: 11:45am, August 19 2012