Is No Fault Divorce Unconstitutional if You’re Religious?

An Orthodox Christian Husband, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Lebanon, is claiming that Maryland’s no-fault divorce law is unconstitutional. The Husband is deeply religious, and claims his constitutional rights will be violated if the court grants his Wife a civil divorce outside the Church.

Religious Divorce

The Cedars of Maryland

In 2009, Husband and Wife were married in Tripoli, Lebanon, at an Orthodox Christian church. Husband is an Orthodox Christian, and Wife is a Catholic. The couple had met a year earlier in Beirut, where Wife, a citizen of Lebanon, worked as an opera singer.

Husband, a dual citizen of Lebanon and the United States, has resided in the United States for over 30 years, but often travels to Lebanon to vacation and visit family members. Soon after their marriage, the parties moved to Montgomery County, Maryland where Husband operates a medical practice.

On August 4, 2016, Wife moved herself and her children out of the couple’s home in Montgomery County. On that same day, Wife filed for a limited divorce in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County

The Husband did not want a divorce. He regularly demonstrated combative and belligerent behavior, refused to comply with court orders imposing sanctions on him and did not consistently pay the legal fees awarded to Wife.

I will repeat it, I will say it now, and say it until I die: there will not be a divorce, [she] is married to me until I die. So, she has to kill me to get the divorce.

The court found that Husband was “not credible” and that he “used his resources to disrupt and delay the divorce trial, filing multiple appeals on dubious grounds, failing to cooperate with discovery, and hiring and then firing counsel.

The Husband asked for summary judgment, arguing that only Lebanese courts have jurisdiction over the divorce and that the court’s dissolution of the marriage would infringe on his free exercise of religion as an Orthodox Christian.

He also argued that Maryland’s no-fault divorce statute violated his constitutional right to marry; that the divorce would infringe on his children’s fundamental rights; and that the dissolution of his marriage would impair the obligations under his marriage contract, in violation of the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution.

The trial court denied the Husband’s motion and he appealed.

Florida No Fault Divorce

I’ve written about no fault divorce before. No-fault laws are the result of trying to change the way divorces played out in court. In Florida no fault laws have reduced the number of feuding couples who felt the need to resort to distorted facts, lies, and the need to focus the trial on who did what to whom.

Florida abolished fault as grounds for filing a divorce. Gone are the days when you had to prove adultery, desertion or unreasonable behavior.

The only ground you need to file for divorce in Florida is to prove your marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Additionally, the mental incapacity of one of the parties, where the party was adjudged incapacitated for the prior three year, is another avenue.

In addition, and what the Husband overlooked in the Maryland case, is the big requirement for divorce: to obtain a dissolution of marriage, one of the parties to the marriage must reside 6 months in the state before the filing of the petition.

Believe it or not, the residency requirement can be a major impediment to divorcing for many people. Almost all states require you to be a resident before you can file for divorce. However, the amount of time you have to reside there can vary from state to state.

Divorce and the Constitution

The Husband argued that the family court lacked jurisdiction over the divorce because the parties were married in an Orthodox Christian ceremony in Lebanon and only Lebanese courts have jurisdiction to dissolve the marriage.

He contended that a Maryland court has no power to dissolve a marriage, celebrated in Lebanon, between two persons who are now residents of Maryland. The Maryland appellate court wasted no time in dismiss his argument as without merit, finding that, like Florida:

[A]n essential element of the judicial power to grant a divorce, or jurisdiction,’” is that one spouse be domiciled within the state at the time the complaint was filed.

The big question for the court then, as to jurisdiction, is not whether they were married in Lebanon but whether the Husband or Wife were a Maryland resident.

The Husband also argued granting a “no-fault” divorce was in violation of the United States Constitution. He claimed his marriage contract does not permit no-fault divorces and that the court impermissibly expanded the terms of the parties’ marriage contract by granting the divorce on the grounds of twelve-month separation,

The court found that, although marriage is a civil contract for some purposes “marriage is not a contract within the meaning of the Constitution’s prohibition and courts have regularly held that marriage is not a contract that is constitutionally protected from interference and can be modified by laws divorce laws.

The Husband also argued the divorce infringed on his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Because the Orthodox faith does not permit divorces absent fault, a no-fault divorce would unconstitutionally force him to commit a mortal sin according to his religion.

The Supreme Court has long held that legislatures may enact general laws that regulate marriage, even if the application of the law interferes with some religious practices.

Because a trial court granting a divorce merely dissolves a civil contract between the spouses, courts universally hold that no-fault divorce statutes do not infringe on the right to the free exercise of religion, even if a spouse’s religious beliefs prohibit no-fault divorces.

The opinion is here.

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