An interesting application of the "no religious decisions" principle of First Amendment law

Vance R. Koven vrkoven at
Fri Oct 9 06:37:36 PDT 2009

It may just be residual morning fog on my brain, but why wouldn't estoppel
be a secular principle by which a court could determine that, whether or not
the parties were validly married under Hindu custom in 1952, if for fifty
some-odd years they behaved as though they had been, then nobody is now in a
position to challenge that marriage?

On Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 12:54 AM, Volokh, Eugene <VOLOKH at> wrote:

>  *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.
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Vance R. Koven
Boston, MA USA
vrkoven at
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