“He relates his words to Jacob. His statutes and judgments to Israel. He did not do so for any other nation; such judgments-they know them not. Hallelu_ah.” Tehillim (Psalms) 147.
Two cases of significance to the Orthodox community were decided by appellate courts in New York and Connecticut near the end of last year. Cohen v. Cohen (the New York case) concerned the power of a secular court to require a parent’s compliance with religious rituals and obligations while a child is in his care. In Tilsen v. Benson (the Connecticut matter) the court was required to determine whether it could enforce provisions in the parties’ Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) in a state court divorce proceeding.
Cohen v. Cohen
The parties to this litigation are the parents of two children. Both parents had been members of the Satmar community during the marriage. The Husband left the community and, from all appearances, ceased living a Torah observant lifestyle. The Wife filed for divorce and a custody trial ensued. After trial, the Wife was granted residential custody and decision- making authority over matters concerning the children’s religious upbringing. The Husband was granted parenting time with the children.
The trial court ordered that certain conditions be implemented by the Husband when the children are in his care. Specifically, the court directed the Husband to serve the children only kosher food. He was also ordered to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the children’s appearance and conduct comported with the Chasidic lifestyle they had been raised in. The Husband appealed.
In his appeal the Husband argued that the trial court had abridged his constitutional rights. He asserted that the conditions imposed upon him constituted an improper incursion of religious principles into a secular matter. The appellate court disagreed. In rendering its decision, it noted that the trial court had not mandated that the Husband practice a particular form of religion (which would be unconstitutional). Instead the court required that the Husband make reasonable efforts to ensure the children’s adherence to a lifestyle consistent with that in which they had been raised. This directive not only stayed within permissible constitutional boundaries, but also promoted the children’s best interests.
Tilsen v. Baron
In this case the husband sued for divorce and asked a Connecticut court to enforce contractual obligations as contained in the parties’ Ketubah. It was his claim that the Jewish marriage contract effectively served as a prenuptial agreement under state law. If the court accepted this argument, the Husband’s financial obligations would be limited to only that which was provided for in the Ketubah.
The Connecticut court ruled against the Husband. The court concluded that it could not interpret provisions contained a religious document using strictly neutral secular principles. Were the court to accept the Husband’s position, it would be forced to rule on matters of religious doctrine which would be constitutionally improper. To avoid entanglement in First Amendment issues of church and state, the court rejected the Husband’s argument that its right to make financial awards was limited by the Jewish marriage contract.
These are just two of the many court decisions involving an overlap of secular and religious issues. It is essential that the matrimonial practitioner keep abreast of the most recent cases in their subject area.
By Mark Plaine, Esq.