Sunday, March 22, 2015

Court Rejects RFRA and Religious Belief Defenses In Forced "Get" Case

In United States v. Epstein, (D NJ, March 19, 2015), a New Jersey federal district court, in a 53-page opinion, explained various rulings the court had made on religious-based defenses raised by defendants who were being tried on charges of kidnapping and conspiracy for using coercive tactics to Force Orthodox Jewish husbands to give their wives divorce documents ("get").  The court rejected defendants' contention that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act required dismissal of the indictment against them.  The court held:
I conclude that the Government’s decision to prosecute Defendants does not constitute a substantial burden on Defendants’ religious exercise. Further, even if a substantial burden does exist, I find that the Government has a compelling interest in preventing crimes of violence, and moreover, the arrest and prosecution of individuals who violate such criminal laws is the least restrictive means of enforcing that interest.
Defendants had argued that freeing an agunah (woman who was refused a get) is a mitzvah in Jewish law. The court responded:
[I]f Defendants had acceptable religious alternatives -- instead of resorting to violating the criminal laws -- I find that the Government’s application of the kidnapping laws to Defendants here does not substantially Defendants’ religious exercise.  Nevertheless, even if Defendants had exhausted all other available non-violent means of coercing a husband to give his wife a get, and the only remaining method of coercion, as argued by Defendants, is through violence or force, i.e., kidnapping, I remain convinced that would not amount to a substantial burden. This Court has not found any authority condoning the use of violence under the guise of religion, and more importantly, no case has found the Government’s application of violent crime laws to certain religious practices is a substantial burden.
The court also ruled that defendants' religious beliefs do not negate the element of specific intent required for a conviction.  The court said in part:
According to Defendants, by signing the ketubah, an Orthodox Jewish husband promises to be bound by the laws of Moses and Israel, both to the authority of the beth din and to the halakhic, or the Jewish religious law, process of the “forced” get as the term is described by Maimonides.  Therefore, taken together, Defendants insist that because of their religious beliefs and because of their beliefs that the victims have consented to the coercive acts, i.e., kidnapping, Defendants lack the intent to commit the crimes as charged. The Court rejects this theory of defense.