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    Can my parents force me to follow their religion?

    Date: 08.16.07 | by Judge Tom.

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all Americans freedom of religion. This right is not limited to adults. Children and teenagers enjoy the same right, which is balanced with the fundamental rights of parents to raise their children without government interference.

    What this means for you is that the government and the courts won′t get involved if you and your parents disagree about religious beliefs or practices. As long as you′re safe and your basic needs are provided (food, shelter, clothing, and medical care), the state can′t interfere with your family. Your parents are free to decide what church to attend, how often, and what practices will be honored in the home.

    Photo by Paul Trafford (Flickr)

    If you′re at risk of being abused or neglected because of your parents′ religious beliefs, the police or Child Protective Services (CPS) may step in to ensure your safety. For example, if you were in need of a blood transfusion or other urgent medical care, and your parents refuse to give their consent due to their religious beliefs, the court could get involved. In a life-threatening situation, or one where there′s a risk of permanent disability, the court has the right to order the appropriate medical care for you.

    Occasionally, a hospital or doctor will contact the court to assist with difficult emergency cases. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that parents may be free to become martyrs themselves, but they are not free to make martyrs of their children (Prince v. Massachusetts*).

    In following that decision, a Minnesota court stated that although one is free to believe what one will, religious freedom ends when one′s conduct offends the law by, for example, endangering a child′s life” (emphasis added – Lundman v. McKown**).


    Photo by Austin Frothingslosh

    In the Minnesota case, an eleven-year-old boy was diagnosed with juvenile-onset diabetes. His parents were Christian Scientists, a religion that believes in prayer as the proper treatment for illness. The boy died because he was denied medical treatment. In discussing the difference between the freedom to believe and the freedom to act, the court upheld the government′s right to restrict acts based on religious beliefs. In other words, people can′t claim religion as a reason for not paying taxes, violating child labor laws, marrying more than one person at a time, or refusing medical care for their children.

    In September, 2011, Oregon residents Dale and Shannon Hickman, both 26 years old, were convicted of second degree manslaughter in the death of their infant son. Born two months premature at home, David Hickman went into distress. Instead of seeking medical treatment, they prayed and annointed him with olive oil. David passed after nine hours. His parents  are members of a faith-healing church where other parents have also lost children in similar situations. They were sentenced on October 31, 2011 to 75 months in prison followed with three years probation.

    As you get older and think about the role of religion in your life, talk with your parents. Share your ideas and feelings. Talk with your friends who may belong to different faiths. What is their relationship with their parents on the subject of religion? It won′t be long before you′re independent and able to worship as you choose.

    Dale and Shannon Hickman

    *Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944).

    **Lundman v. McKown, 530 N.W.2d 807 (1995).

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    8 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • Melvin
      Mon, 17 Oct 2011 at 08:01

      From what I gather….I am 17 and not allowed to choosed my church. Lol. Isn’t my beliefs protected under the constitution parent or no parent? I am an Americn Citizen hence me being able to exercise my freedom of religion….parents often force children into believing something that the child deems wrong or not believable.
      Dear Melvin: Generally, under the U.S. Constitution and the laws of your state, you are a minor until reaching 18. As long as you live at home with your parents, they have the legal responsibility to raise you and make most decisions about your life. Once you turn 18, however, those responsibilities transfer to you. This includes the church or faith your parents choose to practice. At 17, nearing adulthood, a calm discussion with your parents is recommended. They may know little about your religious preferences – this is a chance to explain it to them and hopefully reach an agreement that’s satisfactory to all. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Melvin
      Tue, 18 Oct 2011 at 07:01

      Well….this seems like an agreeable approach. I was just aware that minors had a right o religion too seeing that 17 year olds can even be persecuted and even treated like an adult in some situations.
      You’re correct, Melvin. State laws allow some teens charged with specific violent crimes to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

    • kasey
      Mon, 14 Nov 2011 at 05:07

      My parents don’t just force me to go to church, they force me to follow their doctrine nd follow their traditions nd do this and do that. I’m 16. Do they have the right to force me into their beliefs? If so, to what extent? And what if they punish me, and yell at me for that?
      Dear Kasey: Until you’re either emancipated (marriage, turning 18 or military service) you’re required under the law to listen to your parents. They are legally responsible for you and this includes your religious upbringing. An exception is when their religion practices put you in danger of neglect or physical/sexual abuse. If you talk with your parents about their beliefs and your feelings on the subject, maybe you can reach an agreement regarding your participation that will be satisfactory to the three of you. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Joey
      Sat, 24 Dec 2011 at 07:03

      I find it excruciatingly sickening that parents hold the right to force religion upon their children. I’m 16, and I’m Atheist. My parents are Judea Christian. My parents allow me to be Atheist to some degree, but in public I’m not allowed to voice my opinions and I must “pretend” I follow the beliefs of Judea Christianity. Today, my father threatened to kill me because I didn’t stand up when they were singing during a ceremony at Church. He’s been abusive in the past regarding his beliefs before. He once repeatedly because I used a few words that insults his religion. He’s confiscated privileges such as having a phone from me because of my belief system as well. He’s always talking about how he dislikes me because I’m a “faggot” because his religion suggests homosexuals should be killed; I’m not even homosexual. Anyway, is there any way to gain more freedom as far as religious freedom for minors go? Is there anything I can do to take this to court? I occasionally feel that my life is in danger. Anyway, I appreciate you giving me your time. Thank you.
      Dear Joey: As a minor living with your parents, you are required to obey them. Even when it comes to religion, they are authorized under the law to raise you as they see fit as long as you’re not in danger of being physically abused or neglected. Once you turn 18 and become an adult, these decisions are yours to make. We suggest you speak with a counselor or someone you trust about your situation and maybe a calm discussion with your parents can bring some peace to your home. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Marilyn
      Tue, 19 Feb 2013 at 04:39

      My parents are Mormon and I’m an Atheist. I’m 19 years old and being raised by my parents has caused me so much emotional/psychological grief that still effects me to this day. Is there anything a minor can do when they are blatantly rejecting their parents’ belief system? I suffer everyday from extreme anxiety, paranoa, depression, and stress. There are 7 children in my family and all my older siblings have felt the same way and continue to be persecuted by my parents for straying away from the “true gospel”. I worry about my younger siblings, they have so many problems. A few are health issues, neglect, isolation from the world, and severe emotional issues like depression and anxiety.I know that they even suffer from suicidal thoughts. They have all told me that they hate church, they don’t believe it, and they don’t want to practice the religion, yet my parents STILL force them to go by screaming, threatening, and verbally harassing them. Lastly.. don’t you think it’s abuse when parents force their beliefs on their children, while in the process instilling the idea that if they don’t obey and accept it they’re going to burn in hell one day? A child’s mind can take that a long way, it can create all kinds of negative feelings and emotions that stay with a person for a very long time. I feel broken to this day because of all those times I had to suffer in silence when i was under my parents’ care. The only way to cope was to bottle up all my anger, confusion, depression, and frustration. I thought about killing myself very often because I just couldn’t function. But I did only because time goes on, but I feel so many negative effects from my childhood. I’m socially withdrawn and I have a very low self esteem. I just wish I could somehow legally help my younger siblings so I don’t have to watch them go through that same painful process which they’re going through right now. Is there anything I could possibly do to help them? Are there any loopholes or solutions to this problem? I understand that there isn’t much the state can do when it comes to religion, but what about all the psycological abuse? Won’t that create adults who are unhappy and unable to function properly in society?
      Dear Marilyn: You raise some interesting issues that aren’t easy to solve. Parents under the law have the right and responsibility to raise their children as they see fit. This includes religious upbringing. Unless the home life is either abusive (physical or sexual abuse or severe neglect) the state (CPS) won’t interfere nor will the courts or police. Parents are left to rear their families as they see fit and kids are expected to obey whether they agree with the rules or not. Once emancipated or by turning 18 they are able to make their own decisions about their life. You mention “psychological” abuse. First it is a difficult state to prove and would require intervention by someone or the state to obtain the evaluations necessary to support the existence of mental abuse. Your siblings may benefit from calm discussions with your parents about the effect their beliefs have on them, or talks with your siblings to ease their situation and reassure them that eventually they will get past this period in their lives and be free to make their own decisions. Counseling may also help if it’s available and can be arranged. All the best to each of you.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • ruby
      Sun, 24 Feb 2013 at 04:54

      I believe parents have no right to control your beliefs fight don’t listen its your choice as a human being

    • Carl
      Sun, 05 Oct 2014 at 02:01

      My Dad threatend to kick me out of the house if i didnt go to church with my family and didnt accept what their beliefs are. Can he really do that? Im 14
      Dear Carl: Since you are a minor, your parents have the responsibility to raise you and take care of all of your basic needs including shelter. They get to make decisions about your upbringing including what church you attend and faith to follow. They could be held responsible under your state’s law if they kick you out, but whether or not charges would actually be filed is another story. We suggest you try talking to your parents about your wishes and beliefs and have a calm, mature conversation. It’s possible that you can reach an agreement that will make you all happy. Good luck.
      (Check our Resource Directory for more help and resources in your area. This is information only – not legal advice.)

    • Alex
      Tue, 14 Oct 2014 at 02:32

      I have a question, in the past couple of months I have been learning and “following” (I say following very loosely, I haven’t announced or denounced any religion yet) different religions. My parents and step parents are all Christians and have raised me as a Christian. Recently my mother who has custody over me had asked me if I believed in god or not. I answered with a quite lengthy explanation that turned into an almost 3 hour discussion about religion. I basically told her I am agnostic at the moment and do not deny the existence of god nor the latter. When asked what religion or philosophy I most believed in I answered with something along the lines of “I disagree with Christianity and the hateful things I have read in the Christian bible, I primarily associate with Satanism. It being the most allowing, tolerant and reasonable religion out there. In my eyes anyways”. When my mother heard this she was outraged and called down my step father who, after a bit more discussion said; “You can believe what you want, but as long as you live in this house you WILL follow our religion and not whatever you so choose” and also said “If you choose to follow that religion (Satanism) you will be punished for it” I know that his first comment is unconstitutional. I guess all I’m asking is for some advice on what to do exactly. I know I may seem like some ignorant kid who’s just doing some stunt for attention but I truly believe in this and I have been leaning in this way for months now. I take it very seriously and my mother also made the comment that I was “very knowledgeable and not impulsive or erratic with your (my) decision”. I’ve been considering contacting someone for quite some time now for other reasons as well but I have no idea where to start. When asked for a hearing about my custody between parents I’ve either been fully ignored or denied any sort of information. I’ve been compiling a case packed with reasons why I believe I should be given at the very least a re-hearing of my case but my mom will not listen. I feel as if this last outroar will just be icing on the cake when I find who to contact. I’m currently 14 years old and I live in South Dakota. Any advice or information would be seriously appreciated, thank you.
      Dear Alex: As long as you’re a minor (under 18) you’re required to live where your parents place you or where the court has ordered you to remain. So, if your mom has legal custody, she bears the responsibility of raising you in her home. She sounds like a caring parent who, at least, will spend the time listening to your opinions and reasoning on this subject. It may take longer and more persuasion for your stepdad to come around. You’ll have to be patient and wait until you’re an adult to call all the shots in your life. In the meantime, continue to study and prepare for adulthood. It’s unlikely any court would grant your request to move out due to your religious beliefs when there’s no evidence of abuse or neglect, only a difference of opinion. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

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