Sunday, May 01, 2016

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Isakhanova v. Muniz, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55649 (ND CA, April 26, 2016), a California federal district court allowed a suit by the mother of a Muslim inmate to proceed.  While visiting her son in prison, the mother was held for several hours on suspicion of passing tobacco to her son. While being held she was questioned extensively about her religious beliefs and practices.

In Sims v. Wegman, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56251 (ED CA, April 27, 2016), a California federal magistrate judge allowed an inmate to move ahead with a complaint that he was denied a diet that complies with Nation of Islam requirements and was also denied a kosher diet as an alternative.

In Beaudette v. Winfrey, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56275 (ND CA, April 26, 2016), a California federal district court dismissed with leave to amend an inmate's claim that some of his Christian Identity religious material was removed when he was moved to administrative segregation, and the material was never returned to him.

In James v. Taylor, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55811 (MD GA, April 27, 2016), a Georgia federal district court adopted a magistrate's recommendation (2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56612, March 22, 2016) and dismissed a Muslim inmate's claim against the prison warden alleging that plaintiff was denied vegan meals required by his religion during a Mental Health Evaluation.

In Williams v. Cox, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56714 (SD GA, April 28, 2016), a Georgia federal magistrate judge recommended dismissing as moot a complaint by a Hebrew Israelite inmate that he was refused a work proscription for the Messianic/Sabbatarian date (as opposed to the Jewish date) for observance of Shavuot.

In Davilla v. Watts, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56721 (SD GA, April 28, 2016), a Georgia federal magistrate judge recommended  that plaintiff be allowed to move ahead with free exercise, RFRA and equal protection objections to the elimination of "Spiritual Mass" for Santeria inmates and other interferences with Santeria practices.

In Wolcott v. Board of Rabbis of Northern & Southern California, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56847 (ED CA, April 28, 2016), a California federal magistrate judge granted an inmate leave to file a third amended complaint alleging that Jewish inmates are allowed to possess Tefillin and a Tallit Katan only once a week in the chapel.

In Bayadi v. United States, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57232 (WD VA, April 29, 2016), a Virginia federal district court dismissed as frivolous an inmate's claim that language in the state constitution establishes Christianity as the state religion.

In Evans v. Aramark Food & Commissary Services, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57418 (SD NY, April 28, 2016), a New York federal court dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies a Muslim inmate's complaint that he was served insufficient amounts of food during Ramadan.

When Are Prison Chaplains "State Actors"?

In an opinion recommending dismissal of an inmate's First Amendment and RLUIPA claims, a California federal magistrate judge held that some decisions by prison staff chaplains do not amount to "state action" for constitutional purposes.  In Wolcott v. Board of Rabbis of Northern and Southern California, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57528 (ED CA, April 29, 2016), plaintiff sued the former and current Jewish chaplains at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility because he was not allowed to convert to Judaism.  The refusal to allow his conversion stemmed from policies of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and the California Commission of Jewish Chaplains -- to whom the various Department of Corrections Jewish Chaplains report-- that disallow conversion by inmates serving life sentences. The court concluded that the chaplains were not state actors, finding that neither the "public function" nor the "joint action" doctrines applied here. The opinion reads in part:
Whether an inmate is a follower of a particular religion is an ecclesiastical answer to a religious doctrine, not an administrative determination; whereas a decision whether an inmate should be put on an internal prison list as following a particular religion is an administrative determination..., and Plaintiff does not allege that he is not on the list identifying him as Jewish for purposes within the facility, nor do his allegation imply this....
The only religious activities that Plaintiff alleges have been infringed on are that he was not allowed to attend [clergy visits from] the Aleph Institute ... [or] purchase religious packages [from] the Aleph Institute that regarded him as a non-Jew.... Plaintiff was prohibited from engaging in religious activities in these instances by the Aleph Institute -- which is an outside, religious organization that has not been, and cannot be, pursued in this action.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Christian Retreat Center Not Subject To Hotel Room Tax

In Susquehanna County Commissioners v. Montrose Bible Conference, (PA Commonwlth. Ct., April 21, 2016), a 3-judge appellate court panel upheld a lower court's ruling that a retreat center operated by a Christian religious organization is not subject to the county's hotel room rental tax.  While most of the decision focused on a procedural issue, in a footnote the court set out the substantive conclusion:
Even if the County had preserved its issue in a post-trial motion, the trial court properly concluded that MBC is not subject to the hotel tax because the County failed to establish that MBC is a “hotel.”... [S]ection 3 of the Ordinance defines a “hotel” as a structure that holds itself out “as being available to provide overnight lodging . . . for consideration to persons seeking temporary accommodations.” Here, MBC holds itself out as a religious facility and does not provide lodging to persons merely seeking overnight accommodations.
PennRecord reports on the decision.

GITMO Judge Defers Lifting Order Accommodating Muslim Detainees After Remarks By Top Brass

As previously reported, early last year a military judge at Guantanamo Bay issued an interim order requiring authorities to stop using female guards to move 5 defendants held in a top-secret Guantanamo unit back and forth to meetings with their lawyers. Defendants had been refusing to meet with counsel because physical contact with the female guards violates their Muslim religious beliefs.  AP now reports that this past Thursday the military judge, Army Col. James Poh, issued a 39-page ruling (not yet publicly released) saying that he will eventually lift the order.  However he postponed doing so for six months to show his displeasure at criticism of the original order leveled by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford during testimony before Congress in October. They called the judge's order outrageous.  Poh says that this kind of statement could be seen as an improper attempt to influence the Military Commission.  In his ruling, he said in part:
These comments were entirely inappropriate. They crossed the line. Senior military leaders should know better than to make these kinds of comments in a public forum during an ongoing trial.
He added that he did not take this step lightly, and might lift the order sooner if senior military officials took "appropriate action."

President Sends Greetings For Orthodox Christian Easter

In a White House press release (full text) yesterday, President Obama sent greetings to members of the Orthodox Christian community who are celebrating the Orthodox Easter this week end, saying in part:
Michelle and I extend our best wishes to members of the Orthodox Christian community here in America and around the world as they observe Holy Friday and the Feast of the Resurrection....
We lift up in prayer the members of the Orthodox community who have been persecuted for their faith and subjected to unspeakable acts of violence, and we seek the release of those who have been kidnapped.   We remember those who have been driven from their homelands and who have seen their religious institutions desecrated or destroyed. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Michigan City Restores Cross On Sand Dune-- Sort Of...

As previously reported, in a controversial move last year that was unsuccessfully challenged by citizens, the city of Grand Haven, Michigan agreed to remove a 48 foot cross that had been displayed periodically on a city-owned sand dune for 50 years. The city turned the cross into a Coast Guard anchor. However, according to a report in the Washington Free Beacon, this week the Grand Haven City Council (with one of last year's councilmen having lost re-election) has now voted 3-2 to add a yardarm to a flag pole on the sand dune.  When the side arm is extended, the flag pole will look like a cross. That will happen on several holidays each year.

EEOC Sues Hospital Over Arbitrary Deadline For Religious Accommodation Requests

The EEOC announced today that it has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against Mission Hospital based in Asheville, North Carolina.  At issue are requests by 3 employees for religious exemptions from the hospital's requirement that all employees receive the flu vaccine by December each year.  The hospital allows religious exemptions, but requires that the request be made by Sept. 1. The employees here made their requests after the deadline. The requests were denied and the employees were fired.  According to the EEOC:
An arbitrary deadline does not protect an employer from its obligation to provide a religious accommodation. An employer must consider, at the time it receives a request for a religious accommodation, whether the request can be granted without undue burden.

Alabama City Outlaws Restroom Use Conforming To Gender Identity That Differs From Birth Certificate

In the latest chapter in the "bathroom wars," on Tuesday the Oxford, Alabama City Council unanimously passed Ordinance No. 2016-18 (full text) barring anyone from using rest rooms or changing facilities that do not correspond to the gender stated on the person's birth certificate. A violation is punishable by a $500 fine and up to 6 months in jail.  As reported by the Anniston Star, Council's action came in response to last week's announcement by the department store chain Target that their employees and customers are welcome to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity. Target has a store in Oxford.  Prosecutions under the new ordinance will only occur only if a violation is reported by a witness or committed in the presence of a police officer.  After passage of the ordinance, city council president Steven Waits read from a prepared statement, saying in part that the ordinance was enacted "to protect our women and children."

Secretary Kerry Speaks on Impact of Religion on U.S. Foreign Policy

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a lengthy address (full text) (video) at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy focusing on the impact of religion on U.S. foreign policy. He said in part:
Religion today remains deeply consequential, affecting the values, the actions, the choices, the worldview of people in every walk of life on every continent and, obviously, also here at home. It is a part of what drives some to initiate war, others to pursue peace; some to organize for change, others to cling desperately to old ways, resist modernity; some to reach eagerly across the borders of nation and creed, and others to build higher and higher walls separating one group from the next.
But religion is not only pervasive; it is also complex, especially when viewed from the ground up. Most religions are internally diverse, reflecting multiple schools of thought, regional variations, and complicated histories. And the actions of religious communities, like all communities, are embedded in the political, economic, and cultural environment in which they are carried out. That is why religion as it is actually lived does not always look the way that we expect or have the impact that we anticipate. It is also why our engagement with religious actors has to extend beyond designated leaders to the rank and file.
Now, historically the State Department has tended to downplay the role of religion or pay attention only when religion is deemed a problem, a threat, a challenge. The department has not traditionally had the resources or made the necessary commitment to systematically analyze the importance that religion holds for the success or failure of our foreign policy.... Now that has changed, and the purpose of my remarks tonight is to explain what we now do differently and why those differences matter.
[Thanks to Blog from the Capital for the lead.] 

Armed Forces Court of Appeals Hears Oral Arguments On Court Martial For Refusing To Remove Religious Signs

Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces heard oral arguments in United States v. Sterling. In the case, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a court martial conviction of a marine corps member for disobeying a lawful order to remove signs containing Biblical verses that she had taped up around her desk.  (See prior posting.)  Stars and Stripes summarizes some of yesterday's argument:
Keller [representing the government] argued the Sterling was not punished for putting up religious signs, but rather for defying orders....
He also argued because Sterling never sought a religious accommodation and only raised the religious protections issue later, there was no argument that her religious freedoms were “substantially burdened” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Clement [representing Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling] rebutted that because she invoked religious freedom later doesn’t mean that it’s not a fair consideration.

One Suit Against Scientology Proceeds As Leader Threatens Another (Unrelated) Lawsuit

In Los Angeles yesterday, a California state trial court judge refused to dismiss a suit brought against the Church of Scientology International and its Religion Technology Center by former church member Laura Ann DeCrescenzo.  According to MyNews L.A., plaintiff, who began to volunteer for the Church at age 6 or 7 and later became a member of its elite Sea Org, alleges that she was forced to work long hours before she was a teen and was forced to have an abortion at age 17.  The suit also sets out claims of false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unfair business practices and wage-and-hour violations.

Meanwhile, lawyers for Scientology's leader David Miscavige are threatening to file suit against the publisher of a book coauthored by Miscavige's own father titled Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me. According to the Christian Examiner, the book is scheduled to be released in the United Kingdom next week. A demand letter from Miscavige's lawyers says that the book contains false, malicious, misleading and highly defamatory statements.

Christian Group Sues Challenging University's Speech Permit Policy

A Christian student organization at North Carolina State University this week filed suit against University officials challenging the school's Speech Permit Policy that requires students to obtain prior written permission before distributing leaflets or soliciting passersby. According to the complaint (full text) in Grace Christian Life v. Woodson, (ED NC, filed 4/26/2016), Grace Christian Life's members and staff initiate conversations with students about religion. These conversations take place in and around the Student Union. University officials informed the group that the University's Speech Permit Policy applies to these conversations. Plaintiffs allege that the Policy has not been similarly enforced against other groups, and contends that the policy and its enforcement infringe Christian Life's 1st and 14th Amendment rights. the Raleigh News & Observer, reporting on the case, quotes University officials as claiming that the suit is "frivolous and without merit."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

European Court Says Turkey Violated Rights of Alevi Community

In  İzzettin Doğan and Others v. Turkey, (ECHR, April 26. 2016), the European Court of Human Rights in a Grand Chamber judgment held that Turkey violated Article 9 (freedom of religion) and Article 14 (prohibition on discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights when it refused to recognize and grant support to the Alevis (the country's second largest faith group) as a separate religious community. As described in the court's press release on its decision, the lawsuit by 203 Turkish nationals asked that
the Alevi community be provided with religious services in the form of a public service; that Alevi religious leaders be recognised as such and recruited as civil servants; that the cemevis (the places where Alevis practise their religious ceremony, the cem) be granted the status of places of worship; and that State subsidies be made available to their community. Their requests were refused on the grounds that the Alevi faith is regarded by the authorities as a religious movement within Islam, more akin to the “Sufi orders”.
The court found the Art. 9 violation by a vote of 12-5 and the Art. 14 violation by a vote of 15-1. According to AFP, there have been improvements in the Alevis position since the suit was first filed in 2010, with a Turkish court in August ruling that the government should cover all the expenses of Alevi places of worship. Daily Sabah says that last year Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that Cemevis will be granted legal status. (See prior related posting.)

Indian Court Says Muslim Women Taking Pre-Med Test May Wear Hijabs

In the Indian state of Kerala yesterday, a High Court judge issued an order allowing Muslim women to wear a hijab while taking the All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT-2016). However they must present themselves a half hour early for frisking.  NDTV reports that the order came during a hearing on a challenge to the dress code for the test prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education.  The court said that the prescribed dress code amounts to a restriction on religious liberty.

Amicus Briefs In Support of Petitioner In Trinity Lutheran Case Are Now Available

Next term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley challenging Missouri's exclusion under its "no aid" clause of churches from its secular grant program for playground improvements. (See prior posting.) The deadline for amicus briefs in support of petitioner has now passed, and 25 briefs in support of Trinity Lutheran Church have been filed, along with one amicus brief in support of neither side. Links to all of the amicus briefs are available from the SCOTUSblog case page for the case.  Respondent's brief is not due until June 28, with amicus briefs supporting respondent due a week after that.

Controversial Noah's Ark Theme Park Gets Kentucky Tax Incentives

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, on Monday Kentucky's Tourism Development Finance Authority approved by a 7-0 vote the controversial sales tax rebate incentives for Ark Encounter, the Noah's Ark theme park being constructed by Answers In Genesis. While the project had received preliminary approval for tax incentives in 2014, former Governor Steve Beshear’s Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet rejected the application after it appeared that the theme park intended to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion and the project became one to promote a literal reading of the Biblical book of Genesis. (See prior posting.) At that point, Ark Encounter sued and won in federal district court. (See prior posting.) Gov. Matt Bevin, elected last November expressed approval of tax incentives, and cleared the way for final action by last week replacing four members of the Finance Authority.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Congressional Committee Holds Hearing On ISIL Genocide

On April 19, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on Confronting the Genocide of Religious Minorities: A Way Forward. The hearing focused on ISIL’s genocide against religious minorities and the options available to the United States and other nations. The prepared statements of four of the witnesses appearing at the hearing, transcripts of opening and closing remarks and a video of the full hearing are available on the Commission's website.

State Department Names This Year's "Countries of Particular Concern"

In a little-noticed action, on April 14 the State Department notified Congress of this year's designation of "countries of particular concern"-- those countries which display the most flagrant violations of religious freedom.  In an April 15 press conference (full text), a State Department spokesman said:
Yesterday, the Department of State notified Congress of the decision to re-designate the following countries as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act, also known as IRF. These countries are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and for the first time Tajikistan as a Country of Particular Concern. In accordance with the IRF Act, presidential actions for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan have been implemented. We have waived application of presidential actions with respect to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan following determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority.
These designations help us shine a spotlight on countries and conditions that require the international community’s attention. Today and every day, as you know, we are committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and individuals to achieve our shared interest in promoting peace and stability through, in part, the promotion and protection of all human rights including religious freedoms.
In a press release welcoming the action, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said that it would like to see seven additional countries placed on the CPC list: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam. Christian Post highlighted concerns over the omission of Pakistan.

Colorado Supreme Court Denies Review In Case of Baker Who Refused Wedding Cake For Gay Couple

According to yesterday's Denver Post, the Colorado Supreme Court has denied review in the widely watched case of  Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. In the case, the state court of appeals affirmed a decision of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that a bakery's refusal to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple violates Colorado's public accommodation law, and that the Commission's cease and desist order does not infringe the bakery owner's free exercise or free speech rights. (See prior posting.)

Idaho Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Have Allowed Bible To Be Used For Reference In Public Schools

Earlier this month, Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter vetoed S1342 (full text) which would have explicitly permitted religious texts, including the Bible,
to be used in Idaho public schools for reference purposes to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study where an under standing of religious texts, including the Bible, may be useful or relevant.
An amendment had deleted a reference to geology, astronomy and biology courses. (Spokane Spokesman-Review, April 5).

In his April 5 veto message (full text), Otter said that the bill "is in direct contravention to the Idaho Constitution, and it could result in a loss of funding and costly litigation for Idaho public schools." Art. 9, Sec. 6 of the state constitution specifically prohibits "books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character" from being used in any public school, and calls for a cut off of funding for schools that do not comply.  As reported earlier this month by Idaho Education News, Otter issued his veto a week after the legislature adjourned.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Puerto Rico Tax Authorities Will Begin To Audit Churches

Puerto Rico's Secretary of the Treasury Juan Zaragoza says that beginning next month his agency will begin to audit religious organizations as part of a pilot program begun last year to look at non-profits that are wrongfully avoiding taxes.  According to Ateistas de Puerto Rico (April 22), Zaroga said: "The problem is that there are churches that are family businesses where people are making a profit." [Thanks to Scott Mange and Friendly Atheist for the lead.]

Oklahomans Will Vote On Repeal of Blaine Amendment

The Oklahoma legislature last Thursday gave final passage to SJR 72 (full text) (legislative history), referring to the voters of the state a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the state's Blaine Amendment.  The amendment would repeal Art. 2, Sec. 5 of the Oklahoma constitution that prohibits public funds or property from being used for sectarian or religious purposes. Legislative passage came in reaction to a state supreme court ruling last year that, in reliance on Art. 2, Sec. 5, ordered removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the statehouse grounds. As reported by The Oklahoman, an ACLU spokesman said that if the ballot measure passes, the ACLU would likely file a federal challenge to the Ten Commandments monument.

Student Sues After Suspension From M.S. Program Over Refusal To Counsel Gay Couples

A suit was filed last week in federal district court in Missouri by a former student in the Masters in Counseling program at Missouri State University alleging that he was removed from the program because of his religious views on counseling same-sex couples on their relationships.  The complaint (full text) in Cash v. Governors of Missouri State University, (WD MO, filed 4/19/2016), alleges in part:
Plaintiff’s experience at MSU has been devastating, crushing, and tormenting, culminating in his termination from the program -- all because he interned with a Christian organization and expressed his religious beliefs on a hypothetical question about counseling a gay couple on relationship issues.
... Plaintiff was targeted and punished for expressing his Christian worldview ... regarding a hypothetical situation.... Since he did not give the “correct” answer required by his counseling instructors, he was considered unsuitable for counseling and terminated from the program.
Thomas More Society announced the filing of the lawsuit. AP reports on the case.

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:
From SmartCILP:

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Greybuffalo v. Wall, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50751 (WD WI, April 15, 2016), a Wisconsin federal district court permitted a Native American inmate to move ahead with his complaint that his requests for devotional services for the Native American Church and for group use of a water drum have been denied.

In Smith v. Courtney, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51065 (ND FL, April 14, 2016), a Florida federal district court adopted a magistrate's recommendation (2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51068, March 22, 2016) and dismissed a Muslim inmate's complaint that inmates in close management are not allowed to attend religious preaching and prayer with other Muslim inmates.

In Evans v. Muniz, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51804 (ND CA, April 18, 2016), a California federal district court dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies a Muslim inmate's complaint against one of the defendants. At issue was the lack of halal meals.

In Jones v. Johnson, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52553 (D CT, April 20, 2016), a Connecticut federal district court permitted an inmate to move ahead with his complaint that inmates in segregation were denied religious services.

In Cejas v. Myers, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53088 (ED CA, April 19, 2016), a California federal magistrate judge recommended dismissing a Buddhist inmate's complaint about denial of chapel access for group services.

In Martinez v. Flicker, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53149 (ED CA, April 19, 2106), a California federal magistrate judge dismissed with leave to amend an inmate's vague allegations that his religious rights have been infringed.

In Don v. Kelley, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54124 (ED AR, April 22, 2016), an Arkansas federal magistrate judge dismissed a complaint by an inmate who practiced his religion as a Nazarite over the questioning and harassment he received about his religious beliefs.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hasidic Challengers To Zoning Law Suffer a Defeat on Appeal

LostMessiah blog reports:
A [New York] state appeals court has upheld the Village of Woodbury’s Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws, reversing a 2014 ruling that branded the zoning “exclusionary” for failing to accommodate the high-density housing needs of the Hasidic residents of neighboring Kiryas Joel.
In Matter of Village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y. v Village of Woodbury, N.Y., (NY App. Div., April 10, 2016), the appeals court concluded that the trial court should not have annulled the village's zoning action on environmental review and other procedural grounds. It sent the case back to the trial court, holding that "triable issues of fact exist as to whether the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Amendments amount to unconstitutional exclusionary zoning." (See prior related posting).

New York Court Refuses To Dismiss Suit To Declare Muslim Marriage Valid

In Jackson K v. Parisa G, 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1487 (NY Sup Ct New York County, April 8, 2016), a New York state trial court refused to dismiss a suit by plaintiff who believed he had validly married defendant in an elaborate Iranian Islamic ceremony in New York, attended by 200 guests, even though the couple did not obtain a New York marriage license.  Alternatively plaintiff sought damages for fraud and conversion of a $25,000 engagement ring. A 20-minute ceremony was performed by Ms. Sholeh Sham, who now says she is not a member of the clergy and had no authority to marry the couple. Plaintiff however claims the marriage was valid under NY Domestic Relations Law Sec. 12 that validates marriages solemnized "in the manner heretofore used and practiced" by a particular religious denomination. The court said in part:
The court need not decide at this point whether it is possible for the court to determine the validity of the purported marriage on neutral principles. The ultimate issue is whether the ceremony meets the requirements set forth in DRL §12. Plaintiff argues that, in Defendant's denomination, no particular religious leader must solemnize a wedding ceremony. Under New York law, an officiant at a religious wedding ceremony need not be limited to a traditional concept of a member of the clergy or a minister ordained by a religious order..... Whether Ms. Shams was qualified to solemnize the marriage is an issue of fact....
The court also allowed plaintiff to move ahead with his claim of fraud, saying:
Here, the complaint includes detailed allegations to the effect that the Defendant accepted Plaintiff's marriage proposal and engagement ring on July 29, 2009...; that the Defendant told him that her family wanted to select the wedding  officiant to be certain that the marriage would be recognized in the Islamic Republic of Iran and valid under Iranian law.... 
... Plaintiff alleges that Defendant convinced him that Ms. Shams was authorized to marry them at the time she officiated at the September 4, 2010 Ceremony, and that they were actually married on September 4, 2010. Only after years of purported marriage did Defendant tell Plaintiff they were not married.