May U.S. Court Determine Whether Foreign Religious Wedding Was Religiously Valid?

From Madireddy v. Madireddy, decided Tuesday (and to my knowledge not covered by any other media) by a New York intermediate appellate court:

In an action for a divorce and ancillary relief, the defendant appeals, and the intervenor separately appeals, by permission, from an order of the Supreme Court, Nassau County (Falanga, J.), dated September 9, 2008, which, after a nonjury trial, determined that the plaintiff and the defendant were validly married in India in 1952.

ORDERED that the order is reversed, on the law, with one bill of costs, and the complaint is dismissed.

The defendant correctly contends that a determination as to whether he and the plaintiff were married in a valid Hindu ceremony in India in 1952 improperly involves the court in a religious matter. Such a determination cannot be made on the basis of neutral principles of law. “The neutral principles of law’ approach requires the court to apply objective, well established principles of secular law to the issues.”

The parties’ marriage allegedly took place in 1952, prior to the enactment in India of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, which codified Hindu Law relating to marriage and divorce.

The validity of the parties’ alleged marriage, entered into in 1952, must be determined by analyzing the various and customary rites, customs, and practices of the Hindu religion of a particular caste in a particular region. This analysis is entrenched in religious doctrine and cannot be resolved by the application of neutral principles of law. When a religious dispute cannot be resolved by application of neutral principles of law, without reference to religious principles, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the court from resolving the issue. “Such rulings violate the First Amendment because they simultaneously establish one religious belief as correct for the organization while interfering with the free exercise of the opposing faction’s beliefs.”

The Supreme Court determined which ceremonies are sufficient and necessary for a valid Hindu marriage between members of the Reddy caste of Sudras in the region of Andhra Pradesh, India, in 1952. This is a distinctly religious determination. The court essentially determined that performance of the ceremonies testified to by the plaintiff constitute a valid Hindu marriage between these parties, and that the defendant’s assertions to the contrary are incorrect. Thus, the Supreme Court was called upon to settle a religious controversy, not only to interpret and apply Indian law. “[T]his court is without jurisdiction to consider this issue because to do so would require the court to review and interpret religious doctrine and resolve the parties’ religious dispute, which the court is proscribed from doing under the First Amendment entanglement doctrine.” Accordingly, the order must be reversed and the complaint dismissed.

A plausible result, given the Court’s firm prohibition on secular courts’ making decisions about religious doctrine (even when interpreting wills, contracts, and the like); for a sample case describing this prohibition, see here. At the same time, the people did get married in a place and at a time where religious ceremonies were apparently quite sufficient; and people who move to America generally bring their legally defined family relationships with them. (For an interesting example related to Hmong law, see here.) To be sure, presumably at some point the parties could have validated their marriage using secular documents, either in India or here, back when they had no dispute among themselves about its validity. But I take it that they, unsurprisingly, didn’t realize this was necessary.

In any case, this is an interesting and in my experience little-discussed application of the “no religious decisions” principle (as I call it) of First Amendment law.