Orthodox groups squabble over civil court's overturning of New York Beit Din decision

Court decision sets a dangerous precedent of interference in religious matters, groups warn.

haftr (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
A court case that pits a New York religious court against a civil court also has three Orthodox groups and a Hebrew Academy squabbling over the right of the civil court to intervene in a Beit Din decision. On Wednesday the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and Torah U'Mesorah filed a brief against a civil court complaining that it interfered in a religious court decision. Meanwhile, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR), which benefitted from the civil court's intervention, has lauded the overturning of the Beit Din's ruling. An "amici curiae" brief filed by the three Orthodox groups opposes a ruling by the civil court that overturned a New York Beit Din decision in a dispute between HAFTR and a former teacher. The groups argued that the civil court decision set a dangerous precedent of interference in religious matters. However, an attorney for HAFTR has argued that it was the religious court's decision that set a "dangerous and chilling precedent" that could impact private employers in employment matters. The case hinges on a dispute between a teacher, Rabbi Neil Brisman, who lost his job, and HAFTR, his former employer. In 2006, the school decided not to renew Brisman's contract due to differences in matters of religious philosophy. Brisman demanded to be reinstated, with back pay. An arbitration agreement signed by Brisman and the school stipulated that the matter be determined by a local Beit Din. The religious court ruled in favor of Brisman, who brought the decision to a civil court to be affirmed. But a civil judge, Judge Bruce Balter, ruled the Beit Din's decision was "irrational." The case is now before a New York Appellate Court. "The Orthodox Union believes the lower court's ruling in this case undermines the long-established and appropriate relationship between secular and ecclesiastical courts," said Nathan Diament, public policy director of the OU. "Without the assurance of non-interference by secular courts and the reliable, religiously neutral enforcement of arbitration proceedings, such religious liberty and autonomy is undermined." Lawyers for Brisman and the Hebrew Academy did not immediately comment on the latest development in the case. But earlier this year, Brisman's attorney, Marvin Neiman, told New York'sJewish Week that he only went to the state court to affirm the decision because New York arbitration law demands confirmation within a year for it to be considered valid. Regarding the school's resistance to the Beit Din's decision, he said, "We were shocked they even opposed" the request for affirmation. Wednesday's brief, without taking sides in the matter, questions the constitutional right of the court to interfere. The brief argues that the judge ignored the arbitration agreement, which stipulated the matter would be settled in a religious court. Also, according to the document, the ruling represents a "serious threat to the religious autonomy of the Beit Din, a vital and central religious institution in the Orthodox Jewish community." The brief's authors added, "The ruling creates a dangerous precedent that could lead to unconstitutional interference by the civil courts in religious matters." A lawyer for Hebrew Academy was not immediately available for comment on Thursday. But in previous court papers, attorney Brian Sher supported the civil court's intervention. "Beit Din awards, just like awards rendered by other arbitration bodies, are within the scope of this court's power to review," Sher said.