Courts are civil institutions and as such, they primarily deal with civil matters. A recent case in Orange County, New York demonstrates this concept.
In a Jewish divorce, the husband is required to issue a document to the wife called a “get.” Without a get, the divorce is not finalized from a religious perspective and neither spouse can remarry. And because it needs to be issued by the husband, the wife is often at his mercy. In some cases, the get has been used as leverage to “get” concessions from the wife in a divorce settlement. No one can force the husband to give the wife a get, although rabbis can exert social pressure.
In Masri v. Masri, plaintiff wife Esther Masri asked the court for a higher level of maintenance and child support if her defendant husband Joseph Habib Masri did not grant her a get. Orange County Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bartlett refused to go beyond what state domestic law guidelines provided for (nothing around a get). The only way that she could do so was if the husband was using the get as an unfair advantage in the state court proceedings. The judge discerned no such advantage. She further opined:
“The religious and social consequences of which plaintiff complains flow not from any impropriety in defendant’s withholding a ‘Get,’ but from religious beliefs to which plaintiff no less than defendant subscribes. To apply coercive financial pressure because of perceived unfairness of Jewish religious divorce doctrines to induce defendant to perform a religious act would plainly interfere with the free exercise of his (and her) religion.”
The takeaway here is that civil courts will avoid delving into religious issues unless those issues impact the civil rights of one of the parties under the civil divorce laws.