It’s generally understood that U.S. courts can’t decide questions of religious law. After all, the 1st Amendment forbids the government from getting involved in religious affairs. A recent Michigan case shows, though, that courts can enforce valid marriage agreements even if those contracts have a religious aspect to them.
In that case, a man named Khaja Syed asked another man, Mohammed Ali, for permission to marry his daughter Nausheen. Ali gave his blessing, so long as Syed paid his daughter $51,000 as a “mahr” (a groom’s gift of property to a bride), which is a traditional component of Islamic marriages. After thinking about it awhile, Syed accepted the terms and married Nausheen in 2013. Syed put his promise in writing when he signed the marriage contract during their wedding ceremony.
The couple divorced three years later. At that point, Syed had only made about $4,000 in mahr payments. Nausheen asked the divorce judge to enforce their contract and order Syed to pay the other $47,000. The judge did as she asked.
Syed appealed, but the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the decision. In doing so, it rejected Syed’s argument that their contract imposed merely a religious obligation and not a legal obligation. It also rejected his argument that Michigan courts had no authority to enforce Islamic marriage contracts. The court pointed out that it didn’t need to answer any religious questions in enforcing the contract. The parties had an enforceable agreement in which Nausheen had performed her part and Syed had to perform his.