Improperly Performed Religious Marriage + Religious Divorce + Re-Marriage ≠ Bigamy

So holds Mussa v. Palmer-Mussa (N.C. Aug. 24, 2012), reversing a lower court decision that I had blogged about. Juma Mussa claimed that he wasn’t actually married to Nikki Palmer-Mussa, because (1) some years before their marriage she had married Khalil Braswell in a religious ceremony, (2) the ceremony created a legal civil marriage — albeit a voidable one, because of procedural irregularities with the ceremony — and (3) when Palmer-Mussa had later divorced Braswell in a religious divorce, that divorce did not constitute a legal civil divorce, because under state law that requires more than just a religious ceremony. Therefore, Mussa argues, Palmer-Mussa was still married when she tried to marry Mussa, the purported marriage to Mussa was bigamous and therefore void.

Not so, concludes the North Carolina Supreme Court:

As the [party challenging the validity of the marriage], plaintiff … had the burden to demonstrate that his marriage to defendant was bigamous. But based upon the evidence presented at trial, the district court concluded that defendant and Braswell never were married [as a result of the earlier improperly performed religious marriage] because Kareem [the person who officiated at the marriage] was not authorized to perform marriage ceremonies pursuant to the version of section 51–1 that was in effect in 1997. As we have stated previously, the prior version of section 51–1 required parties participating in a marriage ceremony to “express their solemn intent to marry in the presence of (1) ‘an ordained minister of any religious denomination,’ or (2) ‘a minister authorized by his church’ or (3) a ‘magistrate.’”

The district court made several uncontested findings of fact regarding Kareem’s qualifications to conduct marriages. Most notably, the court found that “[t]here was insufficient evidence presented for [it] to find that Kareem had the status of either ‘an ordained minister’ or a ‘minister authorized by his church’ …. There was no evidence presented that Kareem was a magistrate.” The court also found that “[t]here was no evidence presented about Kareem’s authorization or qualification to perform the ceremony.” These uncontested findings are binding, but we also observe that according to defendant’s testimony, Kareem was an out-of-state friend of Braswell’s whose primary occupation was construction—he was not an imam. Additionally, in finding of fact fifteen, the court noted that defendant and Braswell did not “obtain[ ] a marriage license prior to the ceremony.” Based upon these findings, the court concluded that: “Because no marriage license was obtained by or issued to Defendant and Khalil Braswell, and there is insufficient evidence that the marriage ceremony met the requirements for a valid marriage, the Court cannot find that Defendant married Mr. Braswell as contemplated by the statute.” The district court also concluded that plaintiff “failed to meet his burden in establishing that his marriage was bigamous” because he had not shown that defendant “was previously legally married.”

In sum, we are bound by the district court’s uncontested finding that Kareem was not authorized to perform marriage ceremonies in North Carolina. From this finding it follows that plaintiff failed to show that his marriage to defendant was bigamous because he could not demonstrate that defendant married Braswell during a marriage ceremony that met the requirements of section 51–1. As a result, the district court properly dismissed plaintiff’s annulment action. We conclude that the district court’s uncontested findings of fact support its conclusions of law; therefore, we are compelled to affirm the district court’s order. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Here is the reasoning of the lower court, which the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed in the opinion I quoted above:

On 27 November 1997, plaintiff and Nikki Palmer–Mussa (“defendant”) were married in Raleigh, North Carolina. The parties separated on 3 February 2009. The parties had three children together.

Earlier in 1997, defendant participated in a wedding ceremony with Khalil Braswell (“Mr. Braswell”). At the ceremony, defendant and Mr. Braswell consented to become husband and wife. Neither defendant nor Mr. Braswell obtained a marriage license, as they only sought to comply with Islamic marriage requirements. After the ceremony, the couple lived together in Maryland, but the marriage was never consummated.

Defendant divorced Mr. Braswell in the manner required by Islamic law by returning the dowry and declaring that she was divorced from her husband. At the time this took place, defendant believed she was divorced since the marriage was entered into under Islamic law and ended under Islamic law. However, defendant never sought a judicial divorce or annulment and Mr. Braswell was still alive.

After returning to North Carolina, defendant met plaintiff. Shortly after meeting, the parties decided to marry and remained married for twelve years. During the marriage, the parties purchased property as husband and wife, filed joint tax returns and defendant was listed as plaintiff’s wife on his insurance policy.

On 4 December 2008, defendant filed a complaint for divorce from bed and board, in another action. As a result of those proceedings, the court granted defendant child support, post-separation support and attorney’s fees. On 3 December 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint for annulment based on bigamy. Plaintiff alleged his marriage to defendant was void ab initio, pursuant to N.C. Gen.Stat. § 51–3, as defendant had been married to Mr. Braswell earlier in 1997, had never obtained an annulment or divorce from Mr. Braswell and Mr. Braswell was still living….

While the evidence presented at trial supported the trial court’s finding that Kareem [who officiated at the Palmer/Braswell marriage] was not authorized to conduct the marriage within the statutory requirements [which were that the officiant be “ordained minister of any religious denomination, minister authorized by his church, or … a magistrate”], the court’s finding does not support its’ conclusion of law that defendant and Mr. Braswell were not married. The well-established law in North Carolina confirms that only bigamous marriages are void and all other marriages are voidable. [Citations omitted. -EV] Furthermore, the Court has uniformly held “that a marriage, without a license as required by statute, is valid.” Therefore, even though defendant and Mr. Braswell did not have a marriage license and the ceremony failed to meet statutory requirements, the marriage is merely voidable….

[A] voidable marriage is valid until a tribunal annuls the marriage in a direct proceeding…. In the instant case, defendant admitted that neither a divorce nor an annulment was granted by a court in North Carolina, or any other state, and that Mr. Braswell was still living. While defendant claimed she and Mr. Braswell were divorced according to the laws of Islam, there is no authority supporting the dissolution of a marriage by religious means that can be deemed to be “the equivalent of a judicial determination” regarding the validity of a marriage. Therefore, at the time of defendant’s marriage to plaintiff, she was still married to Mr. Braswell and thus any marriage between plaintiff and defendant was bigamous, and consequently void….