Can the Constitution interfere with the requirements of your religious marriage agreements? Or will the promises to support one another made in an Islamic mahr hold up in court? A recent Michigan Court of Appeals case, Seifeddine v Jaber, says yes.
The Islamic faith plays an important part in the lives of many Michigan families. According to the Arab American Institute, over 223,000 Arab-Americans call Michigan home (second only to California). Of them, Muslims represent the fastest growing segment of the community. Dearborn, Michigan is famously said to have the highest Muslim population outside the Middle East.
But despite their numbers, Muslim families can sometimes find it challenging to explain their religious beliefs to the lawyers and judges who help them through life’s tough family law challenges. From parenting schedules that ignore important religious holidays, to divorce decrees that ignore religious marriage agreements, the decisions of family court judges can often leave Muslim plaintiffs and defendants feeling like outsiders in the decisions that affect their own lives.
So when a recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision took up the question of whether an Islamic mahr could be enforced by a family court judge, the issue became bigger than just the $50,000 included in the agreement. The question was one of the Constitution, and whether Muslim men and women could expect the courts to treat them fairly when it came time for divorce.
Civil Courts and Religious Doctrine Don’t Mix
Sometimes family law and religious law can collide when it comes time for divorce. Observant members of many faiths make promises as part of their religious marriage ceremonies that may or may not be enforceable in a civil court. Whether a judge can consider a religious issue is as much a Constitutional question as it is about fairness.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”US Const, Am 1
To further protect religions from government control, civil courts are not allowed to make decisions about religious doctrine. This keeps the government out of the way mosques, temples, and churches run their affairs.
Can a Civil Court Enforce an Islamic Mahr?
But what about the promises one person makes to another during a religious ritual? Is a marriage contract binding? Can a court weigh in on that? This is a question that the Michigan courts have never considered before (at least on the appellate level).
Michael Seifeddine and Batoul Jaber were married in the Islamic faith. As part of the mahr agreement within their Islamic marriage license, Michael had promised to give Batoul $50,000. But when the marriage failed and the couple filed for divorce, Michael tried to go back on that promise. So Batoul asked the Wayne County Circuit Court family law judge to enforce their marriage contract.
The Court of Appeals took up the issue, deciding whether a civil court can enforce an Islamic mar without creating entanglements with religious doctrine. The court said that a judge can hear the issue as long as he or she decides the case based on neutral application of the law.
This decision was in keeping with a U.S. Supreme Court case,
Jones v Wolf, resolving a church property dispute, and decisions in other states about marriage contracts. For example:
- In Avitzur v Avitzur, the New York Court of Appeals had upheld the secular terms of a Jewish kutbah agreement, referring the issue of a religious divorce to a rabbinical tribunal for a decision based on traditional Jewish law.
- In Odatalla v Odatalla, the New Jersey Superior Court enforced a mahr agreement in an Islamic marriage license.
Enforcing the Mahr Agreement Takes Family Court Judge into Contract Law
Once the court decided it could enforce the Islamic mahr agreement, the next question was how. The court had to apply neutral principles of law, rather than religious tenants. The trial court judge heard testimony from two Imams regarding the importance of the mahr and its cultural significance. But in the end, the decision came down to contract law. Under Michigan law, an agreement is valid and binding on the people who enter it if:
- The parties are legally competent adults
- The contract doesn’t promise illegal acts
- There is consideration (each side gets something)
- The parties reach an agreement
- The contract requires each party to do something
The court found that each of those requirements were met, so the Islamic mahr was a legally enforceable contract and Batoul was entitled to her $50,000.
Marriage Contracts are Not Property Distribution in Divorce
The Court of Appeals went on to say that in enforcing the terms of the mahr agreement, the family court judge was not simply entering a property distribution in divorce. Michigan law requires the all a couple’s assets and liabilities to be divided equitably between the parties. Michael claimed that putting $50,000 on her side of the scale meant the property division was inequitable.
But the mahr agreement wasn’t part of the marital estate. It was a contract made in consideration of the marriage. In other words, what Batoul was promising she would do was marry him. This is the same reason that women of any faith or no faith are entitled to keep their engagement rings during the divorce. Those gifts and promises are made in anticipation of the marriage. They are set apart from the couple’s combined assets accumulated during the marriage.
When you are part of a religious minority like Islam, it can be difficult to make sure the judge understands your religious needs in awarding a divorce. The Seifeddine is an important step in protecting the rights of Muslim women and men and ensuring that their religious agreements are honored and respected.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family lawyer for Schmidt & Long, PLLC. She helps families with divorce and custody issues. If you need help enforcing your marital contracts in the course of divorce, contact Schmidt & Long today to schedule a consultation.