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In re Marriage of Crouch.

2021 COA 3. No. 19CA2084.  Family Law—Modification of Decision-Making Responsibility—Medical Decisions—Burden of Proof—Religion—Endangerment Standard.

January 14, 2021

The parties are divorced. Their parenting plan provides for joint medical decision-making and that, absent their mutual agreement or court order, their children won’t be vaccinated. Father filed a motion to modify the parenting plan to allow him sole medical decision-making responsibility and to vaccinate the children. Mother objected based, in part, on her religious beliefs. Following a hearing, the district court found that remaining unvaccinated endangers the children’s health, but based on mother’s objection, it required father to prove substantial harm to the children to overcome mother’s right to exercise religion freely. The court further found that father failed to meet the additional burden and denied his motion.

On appeal, father argued that the trial court erred by making inconsistent findings under the endangerment standard. Here, when considering father’s request to modify the allocation of decision-making responsibility between him and mother, the court erred by imposing a heightened burden on father to show substantial harm, which is a burden only relevant to show a compelling state interest under a strict scrutiny analysis. Instead, once the court found that father met his burden to show that the failure to vaccinate endangers the children’s physical health and the risks of vaccination are extremely low compared to its benefits, it should have proceeded to consider whether the harm likely to be caused by changing decision-making responsibility outweighed the benefits to the children.

Father also argued that the district court erred by failing to apply a strict scrutiny analysis to mother’s religious rights objection. Based on the above reasoning that a strict scrutiny analysis is not required when allocating decision-making responsibility between parents, the Court of Appeals rejected this claim.

Father also contended that the district court erred by not recognizing his constitutional rights to parent and travel, and by failing to properly weigh his and mother’s competing rights. On remand, the parents’ constitutional rights should be considered like any other factor that informs whether the harm likely to be caused by a reallocation of decision-making responsibility is outweighed by the advantage of the change.

The order was reversed and the case was remanded for the court to reconsider father’s motion by applying the endangerment standard consistent with this opinion.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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