January 28, 2008

New Case Law: Circumcision as the basis for custody modification?

1440008_06caf3e411.jpg On January 25, 2008, the Supreme Court of Oregon issued a fascinating opinion in Boldt and Boldt, ___Or ____(2008). The Supreme Court in Boldt addressed a custodial parent’s authority to make religious and medical decisions for a child. The court also addressed whether a child’s objection to an elective medical procedure (circumcision) constituted a “change of circumstances” that would allow the court to modify custody if in the child’s best interests.

Mother and farther divorced in 1999. Mother was awarded custody of M, then 4 years old. The parties continued the fight over custody, and father was awarded custody of M when he was 9. In this proceeding, Mother filed for a change custody on the grounds that father intents to have M circumcised as part of M’s conversion to the Jewish faith. In the alternative, mother sought an injunction against father circumcising M as a condition of father retaining custody. The trial court denied mother’s motion to modify custody, but prevented father from circumcising M pending mother’s appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling without opinion. The Supreme Court heard mother’s petition for review, reversed both lower court rulings, and remanded the matter to the trial court for additional testimony regarding M’s preference.

Mother is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and M was raised in that faith. Father took interest in Judaism in 1999 (about the time of the divorce), and began teaching his children about the faith. Father converted to Judaism in 2004, and told mother that M may convert, and would have to be circumcised as part of the conversion.

On June 1, 2004, mother filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent M from being circumcised, alleging that M objected to the procedure. Father countered that Oregon lacked jurisdiction to hear mother’s motion because M had lived in Washington state almost two years. He additionally argued that as the custodial parent, he had the authority to make the decision to have M circumcised. The court restrained father from circumcising M pending a hearing on jurisdiction and custody.

On June 4, 2004, mother filed for temporary custody under ORS 107.139 (alleging M was in immediate danger), or an alternate order barring M’s circumcision. Mother also filed a motion to change custody under ORS 107.135. Mother’s basis for both motions was an affidavit alleging that father was circumcising M against M’s wishes. Father again raised a jurisdictional challenge, and filed affidavits from family members asserting M consented to the circumcision, and from M’s doctor stating there were medical benefits to the procedure. At hearing, the circuit court found (1) it had jurisdiction to hear the matter, (2) that the decision for a child to have elective surgery is reserved to the custodial parent, (3) that in any event, mother had not alleged sufficient grounds for an emergency change of custody, and (4) issued an order preventing the parties from circumcising M until mother’s appeal was heard.

The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion. The Supreme Court of Oregon allowed review. The court explained that Oregon requires a two-step inquiry to determine whether a court should modify custody. First, a parent seeking a custody change must show that (1) after the original judgment or the last order affecting custody, circumstances relevant to the capacity of either the moving party or the legal custodian to take care of the child properly have changed, and (2) considering the asserted change of circumstances in the context of all relevant evidence, it would it would be in the child’s best interests to change custody from the legal custodian to the moving party. Ortiz and Ortiz, 310 Or 644 at 649 (1990). The question of a change of circumstances is a factual one, and can be shown by a change that has injuriously affected the child, or a change in the other parent’s ability or willingness to care for the child in the best possible manner. If the moving party cannot establish a change in circumstances, the court does not consider the second step of the analysis (the “best interests” test.)

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the custodial parent has the authority to make elective medical decisions for his or her child. Father asserts that mother’s rights regarding medical care are limited by ORS 107.154, and that his medical decision on behalf of M cannot be the basis for a change of custody.

Outside medical and religious groups took interest in the case, and Mother was supported by amicus curiae briefs (briefs filed by a “friend of the court,” someone not a party to a case, who volunteers to offer information to assist the court in deciding a matter before it) from Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC). Father was supported by amicus curiae briefs from the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Father and his supporters argued father has a constitutionally protected First Amendment right to circumcise his son, as it is a fundamental and sacred part of the Jewish religions tradition.

The Supreme Court declined to base its decision on the medical risks or benefits of circumcision. The Supreme Court held that circumcision is a decision is commonly and historically made by parents, and that the decision to circumcise a male child falls within a custodial parent’s authority, despite medical or religions objections by the non-custodial parent. Had mother only asserted an objection to circumcision as the basis for her motions, her case would have been dismissed. However, mother asserted that M objects to the circumcision. M is now 12. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to take testimony regarding M’s preference, because father’s circumcising M against his will could affect the relationship between M and father, and thus could have a pronounced effect on father’s capability to properly care for M. If M consents to the procedure, mother’s motion to change custody should be denied. If mother is correct that M objects, the trial court could consider changing custody, the trial court must determine if M’s opposition will affect father’s ability to properly care for M. If the answer is yes, the court can address modification of the existing custody arrangement, or whether conditions should be imposed on father’s custody of M.

Clients ask us regularly what is the scope of their custodial authority. Can the non-custodial parent make medical decisions for the child? (Maybe, per the limits of ORS 107.154). What if the non-custodial parent wants to pierce the child’s ears? What decisions regarding the child might make custody at issue? Boldt tells us that if you are the custodial parent, you can make medical decisions without input from the non-custodial parent. However, if the medical procedure is elective, and the child objects, your decision may constitute a “change of circumstances” that would allow a trial court to consider changing custody.