Court rejects religious challenge to alimony award

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Delaware family court did not violate a woman’s religious liberty when it calculated her alimony payments to her ex-husband in part on the assumption that she could reduce the amount she gave to her church each month.

In upholding the family court, the Delaware Supreme Court said July 10 that Vanessa Wright was still free to contribute as much as she wanted to her church.

Vanessa and David Wright were married in 1989, separated in 2002 and divorced in March 2011. In November 2011, the family court ordered Vanessa to pay David $1,313 a month in alimony. Vanessa was a school principal with an annual income of $110,000, while the husband grossed $2,000 per year after a serious back injury ended his career as an engineer.

Vanessa had been tithing, or paying 10% of her income, to her church. In calculating her monthly expenses to determine the appropriate amount of alimony, the family court said she could reduce that tithing amount from $1,000 to $100 per month, finding this to be a “more reasonable amount.” Vanessa contended that the alimony award mandated by the family court prevented her tithing, as required by her religious faith.

On appeal, Vanessa argued that the family court’s recommended reduction in church-giving violated her free exercise of religion under both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a similar provision in the Delaware Constitution.

The Supreme Court of Delaware rejected this argument in Wright v. Wright. The state high court wrote that Vanessa “fails to cite any case or statute suggesting that the reduction of voluntary charitable donations in a monthly expense calculation for alimony interferes with the freedom of religion under either the United States Constitution or the Delaware Constitution.”

“Nothing in the Family Court’s order precludes the Wife from contributing the amount she chooses to her church,” the state high court wrote. The opinion noted that the family court found that Vanessa still had a surplus of more than $1,400 per month.

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