NY court can't rule on Satmar succession

Says ruling deciding on one of the two rival factions would involve "intrusion into religious doctrine."

satmar rabbi  248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
satmar rabbi 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
New York's highest court ruled on Tuesday that the dispute between the two Satmar factions that has roiled the community for the past six years is beyond the court's domain, effectively putting an end to the legal battle. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that an election controversy between the two rival factions could not be decided by the court because it would involve "intrusion into religious doctrine," barred by the First Amendment. The dispute is a power struggle over who should succeed the late Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, who died last year after taking over from the founder of the American Satmar community, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who died in 1979. The sect is now divided, with one faction favoring the eldest son, Aaron, and the other his younger brother, Zalmen. The Court of Appeals decision was a victory for supporters of Zalmen, centered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who control millions of dollars in assets. In May 2001, the two factions each held elections to choose officers for the board of trustees, which controls the sect's secular matters. The result was two rival boards, each of which declared itself the winner. Following the election, the board backing Zalmen took control of the sect and its assets. But the faction supporting Aaron claimed the election that voted in the Zalmen board was invalid, and asked the New York Court of Appeals to intervene. The question before the court was whether a secular court could rule on congregation bylaws, or whether the dispute involved religious issues beyond the purview of the court. Following a lower court precedent, the Court of Appeals - with one justice dissenting - ruled that resolution of the dispute between the two factions would require "impermissible inquiries" into religious doctrine and the congregation's membership requirements and that therefore it could not hand down a decision. The Zalmen side argued that the heart of the case was whether Berl Friedman, who heads the Aaron board, had been removed or expelled from the congregation. They claim that the grand rebbe had denounced Friedman for rebelling against his authority, resulting in Friedman's expulsion. Friedman denies having being removed from the congregation and argues that an elected corporate officer cannot be removed by a spiritual authority such as the grand rebbe, which the Zalmen supporters refute. "It is well settled that membership issues such as those... at the core of this case are an ecclesiastical matter," the ruling states. Although courts generally have the jurisdiction to determine whether a given congregation has adhered to its own bylaws in making determinations with regards to issues such as membership, the congregation bylaws in the Satmar case make membership conditional on religious criteria, including whether a congregant follows "the ways of Torah," the Appeals court ruling stated. "The heart of the dispute involved a leadership fight, that would necessarily involve determination of who was qualified to be a member of the congregation, and the bylaws are permeated with ecclesiastical tests for membership," said Scott Mollen, a lawyer for the winning side. The Aaron side says "membership" is irrelevant. "As difficult as it may have been, we wanted the court to have a hearing on who is the correct board, which is not a religious dispute," said Jeff Buss, a lawyer for the Aaron side. "The corporation exists, and there are established rules it follows, we were asking for those rules to be enforced." In practical terms, the court is saying "work it out in the streets, don't come to court," said Buss. This becomes particularly problematic when assets are sold or mortgaged. "If there is no clear legal statement of who the board is, no properties can be sold or mortgaged, and that's a problem," said Buss. The two sides of the court dispute are familiar, said Nathan Lewin, a Washington lawyer who has argued religious cases before the Supreme Court. "When issues come before the court in this context, there is always a side that says if you apply neutral principles of law, leaving aside religion, it can be decided, and the other side says heart of it is a religious question," said Lewin. One of the potential benefits of a court's refusal to "get involved," is that it can "drive parties to try to come up with a religious solution," said Lewin. He pointed to other examples of leadership disputes, such as the current dispute in the Bobov dynasty, in which a secular court forced the parties to bring their dispute before a religious court. In this case, the secular court did not force the Satmar faction to turn to a religious court, but Lewin said they might end up there. "If they don't," Lewin said, "they are left with very serious difficulties."