The wild and whacky ways of the law

If the entanglement doctrine bars a court from deciding whether a Hindu marriage ceremony performed in 1952 created a valid marriage between a couple that purported to be married and had four children together, why isn’t the default finding that they were married rather than that they weren’t?

The doctrine of “entanglement” holds that, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, U.S. courts may not decide disputes concerning religious doctrine.  For example, title to church property cannot be decided on the basis of which faction in a congregation is orthodox and which heretical.   That makes sense.

But the holding in Madireddy v. Madireddy – that a woman’s claim for alimony based on a Hindu marriage ceremony performed in India in 1952 must be dismissed because the courts cannot determine whether the marriage was valid without inquiry into Hindu religious law – strikes me as odd.

1.  Why can’t the court merely ask whether a person of ordinary understanding in Andhra Pradesh in 1952 would have understood the couple as being married?  That’s an anthropoligical inquiry, not a religious one.

2.  Assuming that the validity question is non-justiciable, why is the default position “not married” rather than “married”?  The man concedes that they purported to be married, and they had four children together.   So why isn’t the wife entitled to a rebuttable presumption that they were in fact married,  with any claim to the contrary on the basis that the ceremony was invalid barred by the entanglement doctrine?

1.  Why can’t the court merely ask whether a person of ordinary understanding in Andhra Pradesh in 1952 would have understood the couple as being married?  That’s an anthropoligical inquiry, not a religious one.
2.  Assuming that the validity question is non-justiciable, why is the default position “not married” rather than “married”?  The man concedes that they purported to be married, and they had four children together.   So why isn’t the wife entitled to a rebuttable presumption that they were married, and any claim to the contrary on the basis that the ceremony was invalid barred by the entanglement doctrine?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “The wild and whacky ways of the law”

  1. Could orthodox vs. heretical claims be decided in the same way? Isn't the anthropological perspective just a dodge? In the end, won't the result be, a person of ordinary understanding would have considered the validity of the Hindu marriage ceremony based on their religious views, and to the extent that he is controverting the validity, we're debating the issues at a remove, but less honestly.

    If someone claimed that you were married to her–that you had entered into a valid legal marriage with her–would you think the default should be that you were married, absent proof to the contrary?

  2. From posting at Volokh it's difficult to determine whether the appellate court is accurately determining that only a religious determination suffices to determine the validity of the marriage (and hence entanglement rules) or whether they're just relying on the record before them, in which the trial court (apparently) did make its determination on religious grounds without either party objecting. If the latter, they could have remanded for a nonreligious determination (did the couple interact with civil authorities on the basis of being married, did they claim to be married when they entered the US, usw).

    For 2, one may want to consider the court's practical consideration of the results of its action. If they say the marriage stands because it appears civilly valid, they get to issue an order to be enforced against a well-off person in another jurisdiction, they get appealed, they end up with more paperwork.

  3. Canadian courts have dealt with claims by Muslim women to their 'mahar', (more or less) dowry, on breakdown of marriage. One court refused to deal with it because it was a religious not a civil obligation. Another court (in another province) enforced it because it was a kind of contract.

    The Supreme Court of Canada upheld an award of damages against a Jewish man who had promised on his civil divorce to grant his wife a 'get' so she could remarry under Jewish law – then did not, for 15 years, thus preventing her (by her religious beliefs) from remarrying while she could still have children. The court found essentially that giving the 'get' was part of the bargain, along with property division and support, so no question of religious validity came into it. The dissent took the other view.

    Generally speaking Canadian family law (which varies from province to province to some extent) says that if you have gone through a marriage ceremony in good faith, you're married – though the marriage may be subject to dissolution on grounds of lack of consent etc. The fact that the official who presided did not have the legal right to do so is not fatal to a claim to be married.

    The Hindu case could probably have been resolved on more practical grounds, under the circumstances.

  4. Assuming that the validity question is non-justiciable, why is the default position “not married” rather than “married”?

    The court didn't take the position that the couple was not married. It dismissed the case without taking a position on whether the couple was married.

    There are, as far as I know, only three ways for the court to conclude a case. The first is to issue a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The second is to issue a verdict in favor of the defendant. The third is to dismiss the case. The court determined that the first two dispositions were impossible without resolving a non-justiciable question, which meant that dismissing the case was the only option left.

  5. I was a Social Security Claims Representative during the 70's, and we determined eligibility for benefits based on legal relationship, including marriage. One segment of the training was to determine whether a Chinese Custom Marriage had taken place, and if it had then the couple was married and eligible for benefits within the meaning of the Social Security Law. I never ran into one in Texas, but the headaches of documenting such marriages were legend throughout the administration. The thing is, they could be documented as having taken place, and if they had, they were considered valid marriages for spouse and widow benefits. I should have thought that was settled law.

    I do not see the difference between a custom marriage in India and one in China from a legal point of view, and America does accept the validity of marriages that occur in foreign countries.

Comments are closed.