You Can't Split the Baby: Interfaith Couple Struggles in Divorce

It's a bitter blow for Joseph Reyes, coming barely more than a week before the holiest day of the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday.

Joseph and his estranged wife, Rebecca, are in a heated custody battle over their daughter -- one that could land him behind bars for taking the 3-year-old to church.

Rebecca is Jewish. Joseph is Catholic. Rebecca claims Joseph converted to Judaism and agreed to raise their daughter as a Jew. But Joseph claims his conversion was just ceremonial -- and only to please Rebecca's parents.

The Chicago-area couple ended their marriage soon after their daughter, Ela, was born. When they split, Joseph had the girl baptized behind Rebecca's back. He later e-mailed her photos of the ceremony.

In response, Rebecca sought a temporary restraining order to keep Joseph from taking the girl to Mass. But Joseph defied that order, taking not only his daughter to church, but news reporters as well. He has since been slapped with a contempt charge, and he could face jail time.

Rebecca's lawyer, Stephen Lake, says the issue isn't a question of the girl being exposed to religion, but rather it's "an indoctrination”. He says Joseph Reyes needs to follow the law.

"He's not respecting that the little girl is being raised Jewish because her mother is the custodial parent. She has that right under the law," Lake said.

The disappointed dad spoke Wednesday after Cook County Court Judge Renee Goldfarb let the restraining order stand until she decides whether to uphold it or throw it out.

"I had my daughter baptized because it's an insurance policy on the soul," Reyes said. "And as a father, God forbid anything happen to her without that insurance...."

But experts on interfaith marriage say a better insurance policy would have been to develop negotiation skills before saying "I do."

"This couple really didn't address this in a profound way," said Sheila Gordon, president of Interfaith Community, an educational organization headquartered in New York City that counsels and gives classes to interfaith couples and their children.

Gordon says that when interfaith couples fail to discuss the fundamental differences in their religions, it becomes a big white elephant in the home, and it can destroy a marriage. But if couples deal with it head-on, she said, they can have very strong marriages.

"We have a series of 10 goals that we take couples through," she said. "We ask couples, 'What are you looking for with children? Do you want to re-create your childhood or make your parents happy? Is it about what you actually believe, or is it about having power or control?'"

In the Reyeses' case, Joseph claimed that his wife was never very religious, never kept kosher and did not regularly observe the Sabbath.

But, a Jewish organization that counsels interfaith couples, says non-Jewish partners must understand that their spouse's Jewish identity may be as much about "belonging" as "believing."

"There's an overlapping of religion and cultural identity," said Ruth Abrams, managing editor of Interfaith Family. "The issue is about a sense of community attained through songs, dances and jokes... a positive cultural history that defines you."

That defining identity, she says, is fostered in childhood -- but in the end, she adds, no matter what, "People will have to negotiate."

Judge Goldfarb is expected to issue a final ruling regarding the couple's daughter in a couple of weeks.