How Do Religious Mediation Services Impact Civil Matters such as Divorce?

Family Law

A persistent rumor — that Islamic tribunals are operating outside the Constitution — keeps rearing its head in Texas. While there is an Islamic tribunal in the Dallas area, it’s one of many religious mediation services of various faiths that exist throughout the country.

The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, operates nearly 200 diocesan tribunals that can handle a range of cases, including as many as 20,000 marriage annulments annually. Orthodox Jews make use of rabbinical courts, which can grant religious divorces, mediate conflicts in business and help settle other disputes among Jewish people. And many Muslims turn to Islamic clerics for resolving disputes in a marriage, along with disagreements with other Muslims.

How Do Tribunals Work?

In the case of the Dallas-area Islamic tribunal — which has operated for several years — imams do not make rulings outside federal or state law. Instead, the tribunal acts as a forum in which Islamic scholars assist in settling non-criminal issues, such as disputes relating to business. Rulings are nonbinding, and they exist within the parameters of U.S. law.

Throughout the country, a variety of faiths including Christianity and Judaism offer similar religious mediation as a method for avoiding civil court. U.S. law has provided for such private resolution of disputes since 1925, when Congress passed the Federal Arbitration Act.

What Is ‘Religious Divorce’?

A common area of focus for religious tribunals in various faiths is marital dispute resolution and religious divorce. In Islam, women can be divorced in U.S. civil courts, but if they want to remarry within the faith, they must receive a religious divorce. If a husband does not wish to grant the divorce, a Muslim woman can go to a tribunal for a ruling, although divorces are not granted in all cases.

Similarly, Orthodox Jewish marriages must be dissolved in civil court and through a religious bill of divorce, known as a “Get”. Orthodox tradition holds that only a husband can terminate a marriage contract, and the husband must write and offer the Get. Even if the spouses divorce under civil law, if the husband does not write a Get, the woman is still seen as married under Jewish law and cannot remarry or have children from another relationship.

Involvement of U.S. Civil Courts

In some cases, U.S. courts handle family law matters for litigants who are married under Islamic custom and law. Such marriage contracts usually include a dowry that the husband pays to the wife; most of the dowry is deferred and is payable if the couple should divorce. After expressing a desire to divorce, husbands must continue to support their wives during a three-month waiting period, but financial support typically is not required after that.

U.S. courts review Islamic marriage contracts under neutral legal concepts that don’t involve interpreting religious law. Courts typically will strike down marriage contracts in which the dowry is all the wife receives and the amount is considered insufficient compared to support she would receive under civil law.

Similarly, American courts are not required to uphold standard Islamic law rules for child custody — granting mothers physical custody until boys are between 2 and 7 and until girls are between 9 and puberty, and granting custody to fathers or the father’s male relatives thereafter — if those rules violate fundamental human rights.

If you need assistance with a divorce case or another matter of family law, consult an experienced attorney.