N.Y. court stays out of Jewish congregation dispute

Thursday, August 3, 2006

A recent refusal by a New York appellate court to review a religious corporation’s bylaws — declaring such inquiry would violate the First Amendment — may have a broad impact on other religious organizations.

“The First Amendment prohibits a civil court from conducting an inquiry into religious law, beliefs, or internal hierarchy, resolving disputes over a religious group’s membership requirements, or inquiring into religious disputes,” the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court wrote in a 3-1 decision in Matter of Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar, Inc. v. Kahana handed down July 11.

The lawsuit concerns two rival factions of Satmar Hasidim, a sect of about 100,000 Orthodox Jews. The dispute began in 1999 when the Grand Rebbe, Moses Teitelbaum, choose his third son, Zalmen, to head the main congregation in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Aaron, the eldest son, was chosen to take over the second-largest congregation, in Kiryas Joel, located in Orange County, N.Y. The Grand Rebbe died April 24, 2006, at age 91. He did not name a successor.

Each brother has supporters claiming he is the rightful successor as the Grand Rebbe. At issue in the lawsuit are two elections for president to the corporate board held in 2001. One president, Jacob Kahana, supports Rabbi Zalmen Teitelbaum as the rightful successor; the other president, Berl Friedman, backs Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum. Determining who is president of the corporate board will also decide which faction controls the congregation’s assets of more than $500 million in real estate.

Both sides, declaring the other’s election invalid, filed lawsuits immediately after the elections. Supporters of Zalmen Teitelbaum asserted that an election result in their favor was certified by the Grand Rebbe; however, supporters of Aaron Teitelbaum claimed the document backing that conclusion was forged. In addition, Zalmen Teitelbaum’s supporters say the Grand Rebbe had previously expelled Friedman, elected by Aaron Teitelbaum’s supporters.

In order to determine which individual had been properly elected as president, the court was presented the congregation’s corporate bylaws written in Yiddish and asked to determine what decisions were made by the Grand Rebbe and whether those decisions were the ultimate authority over all matters concerning the congregation.

Judge Robert Schmidt wrote in the majority opinion that the “resolution of the parties’ dispute would necessarily involve impermissible inquiries into religious doctrine and the Congregation’s membership requirements.” Judges Robert Lunn and Joseph Covello concurred.

Most courts agree that the First Amendment prohibits a court from ruling on religious questions, including those in which a court is asked to determine the validity of a religious belief, independently analyze a religious tenet or review the internal decisionmaking of a religious organization. The courts cite both the free-exercise clause and the establishment clause of the First Amendment as limiting their ability to adjudicate religious questions.

The court’s refusal to hear the case leaves a lower court decision in place, which puts Zalmen Teitelbaum’s faction in control.

Scott E. Mollen, who represented Zalmen Teitelbaum’s side, told The New York Times his client was grateful that the court decided not to become involved in the dispute: “It would open the door to civil courts determining who is sufficiently Catholic or Protestant or Muslim in resolving other religious disputes.”

However, in a dissenting opinion, Judge Robert Spolzino wrote that the matter could be resolved in a civil court by the application of neutral principles of law.

“The First Amendment does not require that we ignore the corporation’s by-laws, and thereby leave the appellants without a remedy for what is essentially a secular wrong, simply because the respondents assert that, as a matter of faith, the Grand Rebbe has secular authority beyond that which the corporation’s organizational documents describe,” Spolzino wrote.

Aaron Teitelbaum’s lawyer, Jeffery D. Buss, told the Times that his client would appeal the decision and said that the court’s decision could have a major impact on all religious organizations because it weakens the authority of an organization’s democratic safeguards.

“It exempts [religious groups] from accountability to their members and it allows them to avoid judicial review of actions taken in the name of a religious corporation,” Buss was quoted as saying in the Times.

Beth Chesterman is a third-year law student at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City.

Tags: , , ,