Partner Sarah E. Murray has come out on the winning side of an appeal of a dissolution of marriage case, successfully arguing that enforcement of a Jewish marriage contract, known as a ketubah, as a Prenuptial Agreement would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Citing to the ketubah’s language that the parties “agreed to divorce [or, separate from] one another according to custom all the days of their life…according to the Torah law as is the manner of Jewish people,” the Husband and Plaintiff asserted that “Torah law” exempted his premarital and inherited property from equitable distribution and relieved him of any obligation to pay alimony to his wife of 30 years. He further argued that enforcing the ketubah would not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because the Ketubah’s reference to Torah law was “nothing more than a choice of law provision that is enforceable under the ‘neutral principles of law.'”
Applying the neutral principles-of-law doctrine, the trial court denied the Husband’s request to enforce the ketubah as a Prenuptial Agreement. The trial court held that, even if the ketubah was otherwise a valid prenuptial agreement under Connecticut law (an issue not reached by the trial court), the First Amendment nonetheless forbids the Court from enforcing the agreement, as the trial court could not interpret the contract’s “Torah law” provision using strictly neutral, secular legal principles.
After a trial on the underlying financial issues, the trial court ordered the Husband to pay a percentage of certain distributions received by him from a rental property to the Wife, and also ordered the Husband to pay the Wife $5,000 monthly in spousal support for 15 years.
The Husband appealed the trial court Orders. The Connecticut Supreme Court transferred the case to itself and affirmed the asset division and support orders earlier this month.
Arguing on behalf of the Wife, Attorney Murray maintained on appeal that the trial court had correctly determined that enforcement of the ketubah would, in fact, violate the Establishment Clause by entangling the trial court in religious matters.
“In considering the enforceability of a ketubah by the civil courts, we must also be mindful that, although religious and civil marital privileges and obligations may overlap, including as to matters of dissolution, our state courts may provide relief only in the civil sphere,” the Court’s Opinion stated.
The Connecticut Supreme Court also rejected the Husband’s contention that his rights under the Free Exercise Clause under the First Amendment were violated by the trial court’s refusal to enforce the ketubah, noting the conflict between that assertion and his efforts on appeal to characterize Jewish law related to his claims as not religious.