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Mens Rea Applies Despite Practice of Religious Norms

In 2010, the Superior Court of New Jersey heard the matter of S.D. v. M.J.R., 2 A.3d. 412, 415 N.J.Super. 417. The Hudson County case involves the marriage of Plaintiff S.D. (“Plaintiff”) and Defendant M.J.R. (“Defendant”) and the domestic abuse that Defendant inflicted upon Plaintiff per his rights and privileges within the Islamic faith. Both the trial court and Superior Court in this matter analyzed the relationship between the legal concept of mens rea and Defendant’s state of mind when acting within the scope of his religion.

Plaintiff and Defendant are both Muslims from Morocco. Their marriage was arranged by their respective families in 2008 when Plaintiff was 17 years old. On July 31, 2008, Plaintiff and Defendant were married. After three months of marriage, Defendant asserted “his rights” as a Muslim husband in four separate incidents.

The first incident occurred when Plaintiff was unable to sufficiently cook a meal for Defendant’s friends. Once Defendant’s friends left, Defendant proceeded to inflict a punishment upon Plaintiff for her failure to cook what he believed was an adequate breakfast by pinching her on every part of her body for over an hour. His “punishment” left several bruises which were documented by the local prosecutor’s office weeks later. Defendant indicated to Plaintiff that the violence he was inflicting was to “correct” her behavior.

The second incident occurred when Defendant, knowing Plaintiff was not a skilled cook, asked her to prepare a dinner for friends. Plaintiff informed Defendant that she could not cook the meal he requested to his satisfaction. He then asked his mother to cook the meal instead (Defendant’s mother had moved in with them shortly after they were married). Plaintiff and her mother-in-law had an unpleasant exchange. When Defendant learned of this exchange, he proceeded to again inflict a punishment upon Plaintiff. This time he stripped Plaintiff of her clothes, and pinched her breasts and her vaginal area. Plaintiff tried to flee but Defendant locked the door so she could not escape. Defendant explained to her that she was his wife and she must do whatever he told her. After his punishment, Defendant then forcibly had sex with Plaintiff. This episode lasted several hours.

About a week later the third incident occurred after Plaintiff got into an argument with her mother-in-law. The argument got so heated that Plaintiff locked herself in her bedroom. Defendant removed the latch from the bedroom door, entered the bedroom, and proceeded to engage Plaintiff in nonconsensual sex. Subsequently, after some unrest, Plaintiff attempted to leave the apartment, but Defendant refused to allow her to leave and instead, pulled her back in and physically assaulted her by repeatedly slapping her in the face causing her lip to swell and bleed. Defendant then left the room which allowed Plaintiff time to escape the house through a window. Once outside, Plaintiff encountered a woman who noticed her injuries and called the police. The police took her to the hospital and documented her injuries. A police investigation also established that her bed sheets and pillow cases were stained with what appeared to be blood.

Subsequent to the above three incidents, Plaintiff moved out of the marital home. During this time it was discovered Plaintiff was pregnant with Defendant’s baby. In order to try and reach a remedy to their marital issues the Plaintiff, Defendant, and their Imam had a meeting. At the meeting, Plaintiff and Defendant reconciled on the following conditions: that Defendant would cease mistreating Plaintiff, that they both move back to Morocco, and that they live separate from Defendant’s mother.
On the night of their reconciliation, in January 2009, Defendant again engaged in nonconsensual sex with Plaintiff three times. Defendant continued to do so on subsequent days. During this period, Plaintiff was deprived of food and a telephone.

Defendant explained to her that according to Islamic faith, he can do anything he pleases to his wife and she should submit to him. Defendant eventually became dissatisfied with Plaintiff and performed an Islamic divorce in the presence of the above-mentioned Imam.

Ultimately, a complaint was filed in Superior Court and Plaintiff attempted to secure a restraining order against Defendant. While these domestic matters were proceeding, a parallel criminal matter was also pending. During the litigation of the above matters, the Imam confirmed that according to Islamic law “a wife must comply with her husband’s sexual demandsÉ The Imam did not definitively answer whether under Islamic law, a husband must stop his advances if his wife said Ôno.’”

The Judge in the restraining order matter found that Plaintiff had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant engaged in harassment and assault. He further found that Plaintiff had not proven criminal restraint, sexual assault, or criminal sexual contact. To that end, the Judge specifically stated that:

This court does not feel that, under the circumstances, that this defendant had a criminal desire to or intent to sexually assault or to sexually contact the plaintiff when he did. The court believes that he was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices and it was something that was not prohibited.

Therefore, in the Judge’s view, Defendant did not act with criminal intent. Finally, despite having found acts of domestic violence, the Judge found that issuing a final restraining order was unnecessary as the incidents described above were merely a “bad patch” in their marriage (despite the fact that the incidents occurred only three months into their marriage, and that they never actually ended), Plaintiff’s injuries were not severe, the parties had intentions to divorce and cease living with one another, at least one of them intended to move back to Morocco, and, he assumed, the parallel criminal matter would resolve the outstanding issues. Plaintiff appealed the ruling.

On appeal, the court first looked at the purpose and intent of the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. At the outset, the court found that the legislature elected to pass the Act, even though criminal statutes could also apply, because of the special and unique nature of domestic violence. Further, the court noted that sexual assault can occur when one engages in sex without the consent of one’s spouse. Most importantly, the court noted that neither the sexual assault statute nor the criminal sexual contact statute, applicable to the instant matter, specified what mental state must be demonstrated for an alleged perpetrator of sexual assault and/or criminal sexual contact. The court then clarified that when a state of mind is not specified, it defaults to “knowingly.” In essence, as the court observed, “criminal intent is generally an element of crime, but every man is presumed to intend the necessary and legitimate consequences of what he knowingly does.” (Quoting Reynolds v. United States, 98 US 145 (1878).)

The court then proceeded to provide a brief historical review of situations where religious norms conflicted with the law. Specifically, the court highlighted the Mormon practice of polygamy, the Seventh Day Adventist practice of avoiding work on a Saturday, and the American Indian practice of sacramental ingestion of peyote. In the final analysis, the court affirmed the long-established law as set forth by many decades of United States Supreme Court precedent: “valid, generally applicable, and neutral laws may be applied to religious exercise even in the absence of a compelling governmental interest,” quoting Employment Div., Dep’t of Human Res. of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). The court further determined that “[t]he only decisions in which we have held that the First Amendment bars application of a neutral, generally applicable law to religiously motivated action have involved not the Free Exercise Clause alone, but the Free Exercise Clause in conjunction with other constitutional protections.” (Quoting Smith above.) The court decided that the Smith case appears to control as the laws defining the crime of sexual assault and criminal sexual conduct are neutral laws of general application.

Acknowledging that the legislature recognizes the serious nature of domestic violence, and that Defendant violated neutral laws of general application when he physically and sexually assaulted Plaintiff, the court decided that there was a basis for a finding of domestic violence in the instant matter. The court further acknowledged that the trial judge in the matter also correctly found that Defendant had assaulted and harassed Plaintiff in violation of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.

The appellate court rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that Defendant’s intention to act within the norms and expectation of his Islamic faith somehow resulted in Defendant having no mens rea to commit a crime and/or violate the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. From a practical point of view, the court was greatly distressed by what it believed to be an “unnecessarily dismissive view” of domestic violence on the part of the trial judge. Further, the court was concerned that the trial judge believed Muslim norms were not actionable, simply assumed the criminal court judge would take a certain action without following up to ensure that he did, presumed that the parties’ separation and/or divorce would resolve the abuse, and failed to sufficiently consider the impact the imminent birth of the couple’s child would have on the situation. Based upon all of the above, the court reversed the trial court and remanded the case for entry of such an order.

In the final analysis, the matter of S.D. v. M.J.R., 2 A.3d. 412, 415 N.J.Super. 417 presents attorneys, judges, and, of course, litigants, with the fact that practicing the religious norms of one’s faith cannot undercut the mens rea requirement of a criminal and/or domestic abuse statute. Knowingly committing an act of abuse, as defined by a neutral and generally applicable statute, is enough to hold one liable or guilty of the act regardless of what his religious imperatives are.

This article also appeared in the Philadelphia Bar Association’s “Upon Further Review” on April 13, 2011 and can be found here and on my website here.

Ripeness Spoils Church’s Efforts

In the matter of Shenkel United Church of Christ v. North Coventry Township, 2009 WL 3806769, Shenkel United Church of Christ (“the Church”), has recently found its efforts to fight homelessness spoiled by the doctrine of ripeness.
In order to fulfill its Biblical mandate to care for the needy among us, the Church, for several years, participated in a Montgomery County run program called “One Night at a Time”. “One Night at a Time” helped homeless persons find shelter for one (1) month during the winter. For a reason unrelated to the case discussed herein, in 2005 Montgomery County discontinued the “One Night at a Time” program. Instead, Montgomery County directed its homeless population to a local state hospital. Unfortunately, it became apparent that the local state hospital was inadequate to meet the needs of the County’s efforts against homelessness, as overcrowding became a persistent problem. In 2007, in response to the continued homelessness problems in Montgomery County, and the overcrowding of the state hospital, a Christian organization, called Ministries for Main Street, was formed to help combat homelessness. The services offered by Ministries for Main Street were, in essence, the same as those offered by the “One Night at a Time” program. As the Church was an active participant with the “One Night at a Time” program, it attempted to similarly participate in Ministries for Main Street.
Before participating in Ministries for Main Street, the Church dutifully notified North Coventry Township (hereinafter “the Township”) of its intention to do so toward the end of 2007. Although the Township had no objection to the Church’s participation in “One Night at a Time” two (2) years previous, the Township now, suddenly, objected to the Church’s participation in Ministries for Main Street, even though the Church was to provide the same services as before. The Township’s objection primarily revolved around its allegation that the Church’s efforts with Ministries for Main Street would violate both the Township’s zoning laws and building codes. Specifically, the Church was zoned for assembly purposes, and not as a residence as required to house the homeless even temporarily. Additionally, the Township’s Fire Marshall sent a letter to the Church informing it that, considering the Church’s present zoning, it could not contain sleeping facilities pursuant to the applicable fire safety requirements. As a result of the clear resistance of the Township, the Church elected not to participate in the Ministries for Main Street program. The Township subsequently indicated to the Church that if the Church was interested in participating in the Ministries for Main Street program, it would need to apply for a variance from the zoning and/or building and/or fire codes.
Instead of requesting a variance, in October 2008 the Church elected to file an application with the Township’s Zoning Hearing Board, requesting a determination that it did not need a variance to participate in the Ministries for Main Street program. After a number of postponements, and unsuccessful negotiations with the Township, the Church withdrew its aforesaid application. Instead, the Church elected to pursue its goals through litigation and brought suit against the Township alleging the Township had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In reaching its decision, the Court never addressed the substantive allegations made by the Church. Instead, the Court refocused the matter onto whether the matter is, ultimately, a land use issue. Consequently, the Court focused on whether the Church’s claims against the Township were ripe in the context of a land use matter. When enunciating the standard for ripeness, the Court cited to Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985) and Murphy v. New Milford Zoing Commission, 402 F.3d 342 (2nd Cir. 2005). In order to determine whether a matter is ripe when a land use issues arises from constitutional claims, such as the matter discussed herein, “the government entity charged with implementing the regulations [must reach] a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.” See Williamson. Based on the preceding, when applying the standard for ripeness, the Court investigated into whether the Township’s “decision maker”, in this case the Zoning Hearing Board, had reached a definitive position on the salient issues. It is only upon the Zoning Hearing Board’s having reached an adverse decision against a land owner, in this case the Church, that a land owner is inflicted with an actual and recoverable injury which can serve as the basis for a civil action. The Court developed the above standard because it did not to want the Court to devolve into becoming a glorified land use board dealing with effectively local issues. It wanted to ensure that the local zoning boards would be the primary places where land use issues, such as the one in the matter at hand, are dealt with and resolved. Indeed, the Court specifically indicated its belief that the local boards are in a better position to make local decisions than the Court. Therefore, an issue is only ripe if a final decision is rendered by the local authority and/or it can be proven that the pursuit of a variance would be a futile effort.
The Church argued that the above enunciated ripeness standard ought not apply; it argued, instead, that the instant matter is not about land use and, therefore, another ripeness standard should apply. To that end, the Church argued that the standard laid out in Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc. v. Wyse Technology, 912 F.2d 643 (3rd Cir. 1990) was the appropriate standard by which the Court should render its decision. The key distinction between the standard laid out above, and the standard established in Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc., is that the matter at issue in Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc. took place in the context of a declaratory judgment as opposed to the context of a land use matter. Under Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc., the analysis would be to determine whether: (1) the parties’ interests are sufficiently adverse; (2) the court can issue a conclusive ruling in light of potentially evolving factual developments; and (3) the decision will render practical help the parties. The Church asserted that the instant matter was, in fact, a declaratory judgment matter as it was seeking declaratory and/or injunctive relief of a pre-enforcement matter.
When rendering its decision, the Court simply did not find the Church’s arguments, or the cases it cited in support of the same, persuasive in the face of the Township’s assertion that the matter is, at its core, a land use matter. Specifically, the Court stated that since the Church’s action against the Township centered directly upon how the Township’s Zoning Officer and Fire Marshall applied the zoning regulations to the Church’s proposed use of its land; based upon this, the Court indicated, it was clear that the matter was, at its core, a land use matter as opposed to some sort of declaratory judgment matter. To sum up its rationale, the Court explained that “[s]ince the Church has not stated a facial challenge to the Township ordinances, the Church is essentially asking this Court to rule on the application of those ordinances before the Township itself has had the opportunity to do so.” A question of the application of ordinances for the use of land is, therefore by definition, a land use matter and the Williamson standard applies. It is worth noting that the Court mentioned, as dictum, that it may not have reached a different decision even if it used the cases the Church citied to in support of its position. How that would play out, of course, may never be known.
Allowing the matter to proceed to ripeness has a fourfold positive effect on a matter such as the one discussed herein. First, it allows for the local authority to render a decision and develop a complete record. Second, it is only after the pursuit of the variance process will the property owner, and the court by extension, know how the ordinances will be applied. Third, the variance needed may actually be granted which would, of course, eliminate the need for judicial entanglement into the affairs of a church. Fourth, it reinforces a basic federal principle that land use disputes are uniquely a matter of local concern as opposed to that of a Court.
The Court ultimately decided that the Church’s matter was simply not ripe enough to hear at this time. The Court noted that as the Church failed to pursue a variance, withdrew is application to the zoning board wherein it asserted that it did not need an application, and never pursued any sort of appeal of the Zoning Board or Fire Marshall’s decisions, that the Church never let the matter reach any decision at any level previous to bringing a civil action. Due to these decisions made by the Church, the Court ruled that the Church never permitted its matter to ripen sufficiently to warrant the engagement of the Court in such a matter.
In the final analysis, the central matter in this case is whether the question at issue is a land use matter or a declaratory judgment matter. For the reasons noted above, the Court decided it was a land use matter and that the Church did not permit the matter to sufficiently ripen to warrant a civil action. The principle to take away from the decision discussed herein is that, when dealing with a land use issue, all local administrative remedies must be exhausted before initiating a civil action.
Finally, one of the issues never addressed by the decision discussed herein, and one that this author thinks is rather peculiar, is why the Church was permitted to house the homeless when it participated “One Night at a Time” program but not permitted to do the same in the Ministries for Main Street program, even though the Church’s facilities were substantially the same at all times material to the case. This clearly apparent, unexplainable, and seemingly arbitrary change in the Township’s policy toward the Church seems to this author to involve more than just a land use issue; in actuality, it would seem that the religious freedom of a Church to achieve its social goals in the community is at issue. Perhaps if further investigation was done to determine why the Church was suddenly restricted from performing a service it performed for many years without the Township’s interference, a fresh perspective on whether the matter was actually ripe could have stopped the spoiling of the Church’s efforts to combat homelessness.

This article also appeared in the Philadelphia Bar Association’s “Upon Further Review” on October 8, 2010 and can also be found here on my website.

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