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Reforms made after mother lost custody of her children simply because of her religion

Hoffman v. Austria  | 1993

Reforms made after mother lost custody of her children simply because of her religion

… a distinction based essentially on a difference in religion alone is not acceptable.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, 23 June 1993

Background

Ingrid Hoffmann was a Jehovah’s Witness. When she and her husband divorced, a court ruled that Ingrid should have custody of the couple’s two children. Relying on evidence from an expert child psychologist, the court found that Ingrid had stronger emotional ties with the children and that separating them could cause emotional harm.

However, this ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court accepted that it was usually best for the mother to look after young children. However, the court ruled that this did not apply in this case, on the grounds that the mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and her faith could have harmful consequences on the children’s well-being. She lost custody of her children and the father was given custody instead.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that the decision to deny Ingrid custody of her children had been based on her religion and this difference in treatment had not been acceptable. The decision had been discriminatory and without proper justification, in violation of Ingrid’s rights.

Follow-up

The Austrian government took steps to make sure that the same violation would not happen again, by issuing a decree about the European court’s judgment to the relevant authorities. The judgment was also the subject of an in-depth study by Austrian family law judges.


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