New Jersey is an exceptionally diverse state with residents from a multitude of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. In such a setting, it is not uncommon for religious and secular spheres to occasionally overlap. An example of such an overlap is when a person seeks to enforce his or her religious marriage contract as it relates to his or his or her secular divorce. New Jersey Courts have previously addressed this issue in the context of an Islamic Mahr Agreement and a Jewish ketubah agreement.
When many Jewish couples marry, they sign a document called a ketubah. A ketubah is a contract which delineates the obligations of the parties during the marriage and through which the parties agree to conform to the provisions of Jewish law. In Minkin v. Minkin, 180 N.J. Super 260 (1981), the Court addressed the issue of a husband who refused to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get, after they completed the secular divorce process. The wife needed to secure the get because under Jewish law she could not remarry without one.
In Minkin, the Husband alleged that the Wife committed adultery in his divorce pleadings. This is significant because according to Jewish law, a Husband must give a Wife a get if he accuses her of adultery. Accordingly, based on the terms of the parties’ ketubah wherein they agreed to conform to Jewish law, the Husband in this case was obligated to give his Wife a get. After determining that enforcing the ketubah would not violate the Constitutional doctrine of freedom of religion, the Court ordered the Husband to give his Wife the get.
The Court later revisited the role of religious contracts in secular divorce proceedings in Odatalla v. Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super 301 (2002). In this case, the religious contract at issue was an Islamic Mahr Agreement wherein the Husband agreed to pay the Wife one gold coin upon marriage and $10,000 upon divorce. The Wife sought to enforce the Mahr Agreement as part of their secular divorce, but the husband argued that the Courts could not enforce the Agreement because it would violate separation of church and state, and because the Mahr was not a valid contract.
The Court held that religious contracts such as Mahr Agreements can be enforced by the courts if they meet two conditions: first that the agreement can be enforced based on “neutral principles of law” and not on religious policies or theories, and second, that the contract is enforceable when such “neutral principles of law” are applied. In Odatalla, the “neutral principle of law” were the basic elements of contract law which, when applied to the Mahr Agreement in question, proved that it was an enforceable contract. Accordingly, the husband was ordered to pay the wife $10,000.
Odatalla and Minkin are significant cases because they stand for the proposition that, under certain circumstances, New Jersey courts can enforce religious contracts in secular divorce proceedings.
Divorce actions involving religious contracts can be complicated and difficult. Thankfully, experienced attorneys, such as those at Salvaggio Law Group LLC,, are here to help.
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