Sunday, July 09, 2017

3rd Circuit Rejects Religious Practice Defenses By Rabbis In Divorce Kidnapping Prosecutions

In United States v. Stimler, (3d Cir., July 7, 2017), the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of three Orthodox Jewish rabbis for kidnapping related offenses.  The rabbis were involved in Jewish religious court (beth din) proceedings which would authorize forcible actions against a recalcitrant husband to convince him to provide his civilly divorced wife with a religious divorce document (a get).  They worked with "muscle men" who would be paid to kidnap and torture the targeted husband. Among the issues raised on appeal were two that focused explicitly on religious freedom claims.

The rabbis asserted that because it is a religious commandment to help a civilly divorced wife obtain a get, it violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to prosecute them for their role in doing so.  The appeals court rejected that argument, concluding that while the prosecution "undoubtedly constituted a burden on their sincerely held religious beliefs," it was not a "substantial" burden, saying in part:
the District Court properly analyzed whether the burden was “substantial” by looking to acceptable alternative means of religious practice that remained available to the defendants. Here, none of the defendants argue that they are unable to participate in the mitzvah of liberating agunot without engaging in kidnapping; as the District Court noted, “it is unclear whether all non-violent methods were exhausted before the alleged kidnappings took place here.” The defendants do not challenge this determination on appeal.... 
The court added that even if there were a "substantial" burden, "the government has a compelling interest in uniform application of laws about violent crimes and that no other effective means of such uniformity existed."

The appeals court also rejected the argument of one of the defendants that his joinder with the other two amounted to a separate RFRA violation.

The appeals court also upheld the district court's refusal to admit evidence about Jewish religious law and the religious motivation for the defendants' actions.  The federal kidnapping statute requires that the kidnapping be committed for some reward or benefit. The court held that the religious benefit of performing a mitzvah (commandment) is sufficient to come within the statute. It also apparently agreed with the district court's conclusion that a religious motivation does not negate criminal intent.  Additionally, the court rejected defendants' argument that the husbands, by practicing Orthodox Judaism and signing a marriage contract, implicitly agreed to the use of force that might be authorized by a Jewish religious court. Finally, on the evidentiary issue, the court said:
We further agree with the District Court that any marginal relevance that the religious evidence may have had was substantially outweighed by the prejudicial impact it would have had on the trial. Suggesting that the defendants acted for a religious purpose might have given rise to the potential for jury nullification, which we have held is substantially prejudicial.
NJ Advance Media reports on some of the other issues covered by the decision. [Thanks to Tom Rutledge for being the first reader to send me the lead.]