Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Establishment Clause Does Not Prevent Court's Deciding Dispute Over Burials

In Attal v. Taylor, (CA Ct. App., July 25, 2008), a California state appellate court held that the Establishment Clause did not preclude it from settling a complicated dispute between three siblings regarding the burial of their mother and brother.

Sharon Attal petitioned a court to have the body of her mother-- Joan Taylor-- removed from a crypt where it had been interred in 1988, and buried in a Jewish cemetery. Joan was born Jewish, but during most of her life was a practicing Presbyterian, and raised her children as Presbyterians. However in 1989, Joan's daughter Sharon began practicing Judaism. When Sharon's brother Mark died, Joan disregarded his instructions that his body be placed next to their mother's, and instead Joan had Mark buried in a Jewish section of a cemetery. Subsequently, Sharon entered an arrangement with her other brother, Dennis, to move their mother Joan's remains to the Jewish cemetery next to Mark, and to transfer the crypt space for use by Dennis and his wife. The fourth sibling, John, however objected, and the cemetery refused to move Joan's body unless a court order was obtained.

When Sharon petitioned the court to have her mother's body moved, John petitioned the court instead to have Mark's body moved from the Jewish cemetery back to the crypt next to their mother, as Mark had originally requested. The trial court denied Sharon's petition and granted John's. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that it could apply neutral principles to resolve the dispute, without becoming entangled in questions of religious doctrine. While the trial court elicited evidence on whether or not Joan and Mark had been practicing Jews, this was relevant to the neutral inquiry regarding their wishes as to the disposition of their remains.