Friday, February 10, 2023

Bishop Must Testify in Divorce Case with Millions of Dollars at Stake

L.M. v. M.A., (NY County Sup. Ct., Feb. 6, 2023), is a decision by a New York state trial court refusing to quash a subpoena that orders a Coptic Orthodox Church Bishop to testify in a divorce action.  At issue is whether the parties to the divorce action were ever married. If they were, the wife may share in millions of dollars of assets in her claims for equitable distribution of marital property and spousal support. The court explains:

The parties here disagree about whether they were married in 2017, with plaintiff stating that they were married, and defendant stating that the Bishop "blessed" their relationship, but did not marry them. The parties agree that their infant son was baptized, as planned.... The parties also agree that Plaintiff mother L.M., who had previously been baptized by another church ... was then baptized in front of many witnesses in the church in an unplanned ceremony immediately following the child's baptism. What occurred next is the crux of the parties' dispute. Defendant father M.A. asserts that the Bishop, the subject of the instant subpoena, who had conducted the two baptisms, then proceeded to perform a family blessing. Plaintiff mother, on the other hand, claims that the Bishop offered to marry the parties ... and that he then performed the parties' previously unplanned wedding ceremony....  The Bishop performed the ceremonies in a combination of the English, Arabic and Coptic languages and most of the guests, all of whom had only been invited to the child's baptism, were not sure whether or not the final ceremony was a marriage ceremony....

As the Bishop has refused to testify as to which ceremony he performed, allegedly because his religious conviction prevents him from testifying in a civil action involving church members, and the parties and their witnesses have testified to diametrically conflicting views as to which ceremony took place, the Court and the parties have all asked the Bishop to testify. Defendant served a valid subpoena upon the Bishop and the Bishop ... has moved to quash the subpoena, stating through counsel and an affidavit from a Coptic theologian, that it is contrary to the tenets of the religion for the Bishop to testify in civilian court "brother against brother."

The court however refused to quash the subpoena, saying in part:

[T]he Court does not have a sufficient factual basis to find that either (i) Bishop A.B. personally has a religious belief that he cannot come into a civilian court to testify "brother against brother," or that (ii) even if he had such a belief, that it is applicable here, where he is not being asked to testify against a co-religionist but instead to describe a public factual event, and both parties (the only people who could plausibly be considered to be a person "against" whom he is testifying) are instead asking him to testify about those facts.....

In a lengthy discussion, the court went on to say that even if this did pose a 1st Amendment issue, there was no violation here.