If a child has determined that they don't want to attend religious services with their parent, at what age can they no longer be compelled to do so?


  • A parent is stating to their child that they must go with them.
  • A child (of unstated but still minor age) doesn't want to go.
  • Occurring within United States (Michigan if it matters to that level) (area of the world where the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is not ratified)

Are there actual laws written, or de facto situations (e.g. let's say another law specifies that a child can't be physically forced to go anywhere without causing abuse) where the child can refuse to attend? Are there "tiers" to the age; Is it true that a temper tantrum of a 5 year old would be seen as such, but the refusal of a 17 year would be legally accepted?

My comment regarding abuse is purposefully vague. When is it abuse? Is it only physical? If a child claims one religious affiliation (or alternately none at all), is it abuse to force indoctrination? If so, at what age can a child be considered "old enough" to decide that this is some method of verbal abuse? Are there other abuses that can be (or have been successfully) claimed?

Please don't assume I only limit the "de facto situations" to abuse. Consider if there are other items that would affect this activity.

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    @Ron yes, I've understood parental authority to mean, "You can force your child to do whatever you want as long as that force doesn't constitute abuse". The question here is whether there is a workable definition of when forcing a child to participate in religion against their will becomes so forceful that it constitutes abuse, or whether each case is evaluated individually/holistically. May 25, 2018 at 19:49
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    @Tim religious freedom is held as a higher right than, say, the rights to play video games until midnight or wear very short skirts. May 25, 2018 at 19:54
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    Let's say if my parents had stuck me in a church at age 16 against my will, which they would never have done, I would have been quite capable of behaving in a way that got me thrown out.
    – gnasher729
    May 27, 2018 at 14:18
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    @gnasher729 OK, full disclosure. I am 16 but I read a LOT. I have studied old Greek and Aramaic and have come to the conclusion that Jehovah's Witness have mistranslated when they created the New World Translation. I believe Jesus is God but my parents don't. I have no intention of misbehaving, because I cannot justify doing evil. I now have this odd balance in honoring my parents but would prefer to not subject myself to the constant barrage that I get at the Kingdom Hall. I would like to get a solution before summer break (on school computer now) because if I don't start attending, no cmputr May 29, 2018 at 12:31
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    I do not want this to be a religious discussion. I just was hoping for a legal precedent wherein I can claim (what I feel is) a personal constitutional right before I am of the age of majority. Child Protective Services and other agencies have been of no help. If parents are providing a safe home, with food and a mattress, it seems they can do nothing. May 29, 2018 at 12:35

1 Answer 1


Are there actual laws written, or de facto situations (e.g. let's say another law specifies that a child can't be physically forced to go anywhere without causing abuse) where the child can refuse to attend? Are there "tiers" to the age; Is it true that a temper tantrum of a 5 year old would be seen as such, but the refusal of a 17 year would be legally accepted?

This is a hard question to answer that doesn't have a neat resolution.

Very little pertaining to the authority of a parent over a child is codified in statutory law and there is not a clear cut age at which a child has "freedom of conscience" vis-a-vis a parent.

Most of the law related to children concerns allocation of parenting time and parental decision making between divorced, separated or unmarried parents; abuse and neglect; and juvenile delinquency. There is also usually a snippet of criminal law stating that certain kinds of uses of force to discipline children do not constitute crimes.

But, part of why it doesn't come up very much is that older children are usually socialized in a manner that causes them to show a certain amount of respect for the wishes of their parents. It also doesn't come up much for children who aren't in their late teens, because the complete economic dependence of children on their parents or guardians gives the parents considerable power of their children that doesn't require the exercise of physical force.

Also, it is quite dependent upon how the issue presents itself. No law enforcement agency is going to aid a parent in forcibly dragging a kid to church against their will. But, no social services agency is going to remove a kid from a home because his birthday party will be cancelled if he doesn't go to the church of his parents' choice the Sunday before his birthday.

There are also some subtle but important distinctions between states on the issue of emancipation.

In Colorado, emancipation is a statement about the empirical reality. If a child is self-supporting and lives apart from parents or guardians then the child is an emancipated minor. It is not a status granted by a court, it is a status acknowledged by courts when evaluating other issues.

In California, a child is not emancipated unless a court grants a child that status and a child who is de facto emancipated without the leave of a court is guilty of a "status offense" (the New York State term for someone in this state is PINS for "person in need of supervision").

Basically, if a parent can force a child to go to church by means that don't constitute abuse or neglect and don't exceed the level of force authorize for child discipline in the criminal code, then they can do it, and if they can't manage that, then they can't do it.

Many states have a "status offense" that allows government intervention with the cooperation of a parent or guardian in cases where an "uncontrollable" child is defiant and simply will not give any heed to the parent or guardian's instructions.

In practice, the older a child is, the less likely someone viewing a parent's conduct forcing a child to do something is to be viewed as acceptable or legally justified.

The legal rights of children in a school setting are also age dependent under the case law, although not always in a really well defined way. Controls on student expression that would be uncontroversial for elementary school students may be looked upon by the law with disfavor for high school students and clearly prohibited for adults.

Perhaps one useful way to conceptualize it is that trying to make a child attend a particular kind of religious service is not considered an improper purposes for a parent of any minor to utilize the resources available to the parent to do so, but the range of resources available to a parent with regard to an adult child is much narrower.

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    What about the child gets support from another adult, e.g. a neighbour, close relative or so, to refuse to go to church?
    – d-b
    Apr 27, 2021 at 11:23
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    @d-b None of that changes the fundamental legal analysis, just the pros and cons for a child in that position.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 27, 2021 at 17:26
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    No but the practical outcome! Which might lead to a court case. Since parents normally can blackmail their children into submission and therefore can avoid a court case that actually might lose, the support of an external adult might change the whole equation.
    – d-b
    Apr 27, 2021 at 17:31
  • @b-d Cases of this kind are almost never litigated. Non-litigation self-help solutions almost always prevail.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 27, 2021 at 18:18
  • @ohwilleke and that's why the question is so interesting. I'm quite sure that a child asks this every day and, like the OP, finds that there is little helpful information out there because these cases rarely make it before a court. It's also valuable from a legal theory perspective, as being able to consider rarely-litigated hypotheticals allows us to better reason what the law actually is. Jan 8, 2023 at 20:48

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