Today is September 17th: Constitution Day. For anyone involved in divorce and family law cases, your Constitutional rights are always at risk. In New Jersey that was recently proved when a family judge restrained a woman from posting a video about her husband’s refusal to give her a religious divorce.
Gotta Get a Get
On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they created. Written 236 years ago, the U.S. Constitution is still the country’s most important legal instrument – even impacting people going through a simple divorce today.
For many Americans, religion plays an important part of finalizing their divorce. All three major monotheistic religions require a religious divorce to remarry within the faith. Without a religious divorce, a second marriage will not be recognized.
Agunot refers to Jewish women who are separated from their husbands but unable to obtain a legal Jewish divorce, leaving them barred from remarriage under Judaism’s adultery laws. One New Jersey woman denied a “Get” – a jewish divorce – decided to take matters into her own hands. She posted a video accusing her estranged husband of improperly withholding a get, and asking community members to “press” her husband to give the get.
After the video was made, the husband obtained a restraining order based on a domestic violence complaint alleging harassment. He testified that he received numerous phone calls from unknown numbers, a photograph of himself identifying him as a “get refuser” and calling on others to “tell him to free his wife.” Additionally, he was adamant that he was not a get refuser.
The trial judge found that the communication was “invasive” of the husband’s privacy, holding:
“one cannot hide behind the First Amendment when that communication is invasive of the recipient’s privacy.”
The trial judge entered a temporary restraining order against the Wife’s video and she appealed.
Florida and Constitutional Rights
I’ve written about the intersection of the U.S. Constitution and divorce cases before. This Constitution Day it is important to understand that family courts have a lot of power which can impact your constitutional rights.
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution has an express right of privacy clause in it. Florida courts have interpreted the Florida Constitution to afford even greater privacy rights than those in the U.S. Constitution.
Accordingly, Florida courts have to carefully balance a parent’s constitutional right against the state’s interests. When the matter involves religious beliefs, family courts generally do not make decisions in favor of a specific religion over the objection of the other parent. The court should also avoid interference with the right of a parent to practice their own religion and avoid imposing an obligation to enforce the religious beliefs of the other parent.
First Amendment Gets Going
On appeal, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division held that the wife’s video was constitutionally protected speech. The appellate court vacated the temporary restraining order holding: a “general history” of violence was insufficient to vitiate First Amendment protections.
The video, whether viewed on its own or in the context in which it was disseminated, does not fall outside the First Amendment’s protection. Recall that the trial judge had concluded that the video was not protected by the First Amendment because members of the Jewish community would respond violently to plaintiff being identified as a get refuser.
However, the trial judge’s reliance on an unspecified general history of violent treatment to which get refusers were subjected was insufficient to render the wife’s video a true threat or an imminent danger to satisfy the incitement requirement.
To qualify as incitement and lose First Amendment protection a communication must be both “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and . . . likely to incite or produce such action.”
The New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division opinion is here.