According to a recent article in the Beaufort Observer, the North Carolina Court of Appeals last week handed down a somewhat surprising decision concerning Islamic Sharia Law. The Court of Appeals decided to void a marriage by a woman to a man seeking annulment on the grounds of bigamy. The husband argued that his marriage of 12 years (which resulted in three children) was null and void because she had previously been married under Sharia Law to another man and that marriage was never officially dissolved.
The Court held that the woman's first marriage was legal despite there being no marriage certificate and it not being performed by an imam or any licensed minister. Because no process to void this first marriage was ever undertaken, the Islamic ceremony was upheld as a legitimate legal marriage. As a result, the wife was already married when she married her new husband and the second marriage thus became null and void.
The decision was a split 2-1 decision which means it is appealable to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The woman in question is looking for assistance finding an attorney because she cannot afford to appeal at the moment.
The recent decision is both interesting and important. The decision upheld Sharia Law by validating an Islamic marriage ceremony that was nothing more than a friend pronouncing the two individuals husband and wife. No marriage license was involved, no official minister. Yet the actions were condoned by the Court of Appeals when they upheld the validity of the first marriage in granting an annulment for the second.
The wife in the case argued that she was divorced when she entered into her second marriage because she had complied with Islamic law for dissolving a marriage. Somewhat bizarrely, the Court of Appeals rejected this argument (precisely the one they accepted from the husband). On one hand, the Court decided to enforce a religiously-based marriage that is not recognized as having met the legal requirements of marriage, while on the other hand the Court refused to accept the religiously-based divorce, instead requiring a civil termination.
The important issue that the case highlights is what exactly constitutes a legal marriage. The decision could lead to a slippery slope by validating a marriage created under a belief system but not in accordance with legal requirements. If a similar case were to appear in South Carolina family law courts, the justices ought to remember that their role is to interpret the statutory specifics of marriage and divorce and stay out of the religious aspects particular to each couple. If you have a similarly complicated potential divorce case then it's critical that you have a skilledSouth Carolina family law attorney on your side.
To read the decision, and the dissent, click here.