State Finds that Islamic Marriage Promise is Valid Contract
Jeffrey Gold, Associated Press, 8/2/02
NEWARK, N.J. - Just before she was married at her parent's home six years ago, H. Saadeh and her groom, Zuhair Odatalla, signed their Islamic marriage license. It included the terms of the traditional gift a groom makes to his bride.
Those terms, known as a "mahr" agreement, said Odatalla was obligated to pay "prompt one golden pound coin; postponed ten thousand U.S. dollars." During the ceremony, he handed Saadeh a gold coin. Eight days later, they were also married in a civil ceremony. In October 1999, the couple separated and the $10,000 Saadeh believed she was due from the mahr agreement became part of the divorce lawsuit.
Now, a landmark ruling by a state judge found that the traditional promise is fair game for civil authorities, and that Odatalla should pay. The ruling on the clash of secular law with the religious custom of the mahr is believed to be the first in New Jersey, and only one of a handful around the nation.
The judge agreed with Saadeh that the court could intervene without violating the constitutional separation of church and state. Superior Court Judge John E. Selser III reasoned he did not have to interpret any religious doctrine to make the ex-husband pay up...
"I think if courts are used to enforce agreements in a wide variety of contractual issues, I think this is appropriate," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C...
The ruling is also important because a mahr is part of all Islamic marriage contracts, Saadeh's lawyer said. Abed Awad estimated there are about 1 million such contracts in the United States...
"With this decision, I believe it will make it easier for wives to recover their rightful mahr. In addition it will give religious clerics more teeth for enforcement," Awad said.