America’s “religious courts” go unnoticed

Across the United States, religious courts operate on a routine, everyday basis. The Roman Catholic Church alone has nearly 200 diocesan tribunals that handle a variety of cases, including an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 marriage annulments each year.1 In addition, many Orthodox Jews use rabbinical courts to obtain religious divorces, resolve business conflicts and settle other disputes with fellow Jews. Similarly, many Muslims appeal to Islamic clerics to resolve marital disputes and other disagreements with fellow Muslims.

For the most part, religious courts and tribunals operate without much public notice or controversy. Occasionally, however, issues involving religious law or religious courts garner media attention. The handling of clergy sexual abuse cases under Catholic canon law, for example, has come under scrutiny.2 Internal church proceedings aimed at disciplining Protestant clergy have generated news coverage because they have highlighted debates over same-sex marriage and openly gay ministers.3 There also have been public protests against Orthodox Jewish men who refused to grant their wives a religious divorce.4 Meanwhile, bills aimed at banning the use of Islamic (sharia) law – or at restricting the application of religious or foreign law in general – have been introduced in more than 30 state legislatures. (For more details on those legislative initiatives, see the map graphic “State Legislation Restricting Use of Foreign or Religious Law.”)

Disputes over the laws of various religious traditions have occasionally made their way into U.S. civil courts, but the Supreme Court consistently has ruled that judges and other government officials may not interpret religious doctrine or rule on theological matters.5 In such cases, civil courts must either defer to the decisions of religious bodies or adjudicate religious disputes based on neutral principles in secular law. For example, in recent years the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has battled in state court with several congregations over control of buildings, property and funds after the congregations voted to join more theologically conservative branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. So far, the cases have been decided in favor of the diocese using contract and real estate law rather than church law.6

Role of Mediation in Religious Legal Disputes

Grievances within a faith tradition often are settled amicably or adjudicated by the religious community itself without involvement from religious or secular courts. Indeed, many religious groups encourage members who are accused of (non-criminal) moral wrongdoing or who are involved in a financial dispute with another member of the religious group to engage in mediation in an effort to come to a voluntary agreement. In many cases, more formal tribunals and the like are employed only after such efforts at mediation fail.

For many Christians, mediation is more than just a cost-efficient way to resolve disputes. Some cite biblical passages, such as St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which urge believers to bring their grievances to fellow believers rather than to outside authorities. In addition, some Christians believe that mediation helps to promote reconciliation and forgiveness for everyone involved. “God has called us to something that’s more glorifying than proving what’s right or even just,” according to Annette Friesen, who works as a conciliation and training consultant at Peacemaker Ministries’ Institute for Christian Conciliation in Billings, Mont.

Mediation also has a place in other faith traditions. For instance, a saying (or hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad speaks of the risks judges take when they make wrong or unjust decisions.7 As a result, mediation is often viewed as a better course of action than settling the dispute in court, according to Imam Moujahed Bakhach, who directs the Mediation Institute of North Texas in Fort Worth.8 “Many Muslims like mediation for resolving problems because it allows them to work things out without necessarily disclosing private matters in a public place,” Bakhach says.

Jews – particularly the Orthodox, who often view Jewish law (halakhah) as governing nearly every aspect of daily life – also frequently turn to religious mediators to resolve disputes with fellow Jews. “Mediation is strongly favored in Jewish law, and rabbinic literature contains high praise for parties who are able to settle their disputes rather than engage in litigation,” according to Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of Beth Din of America, a rabbinical court in New York City. “While there is no specific process for mediation that all or most rabbis follow, rabbis encourage settlement and will attempt to mediate disputes whenever that is possible.”

When mediation is not possible, either because the parties are unable to come to a settlement or because the case involves accusations of a particularly serious nature, churches and other religious groups may turn to religious courts or tribunals.


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