Circuit Court Family Division LC No. 16-113901-DM
Before: Letica, P.J., and Ronayne Krause and Boonstra, JJ.
appeals as of right a judgment of divorce. On appeal,
plaintiff presents arguments challenging the trial
court's enforcement of a provision in the parties'
Islamic marriage certificate requiring plaintiff to pay $50,
000 to defendant and challenging the trial court's
property distribution analysis. We affirm.
makes several arguments challenging whether the trial court
applied neutral principles of law in determining that the
provision in the parties' Islamic marriage certificate
constituted a contract requiring plaintiff to pay $50, 000 to
defendant. Plaintiff's arguments are devoid of merit.
existence and interpretation of a contract are questions of
law reviewed de novo." Kloian v Domino's Pizza,
LLC, 273 Mich.App. 449, 452; 733 N.W.2d 766 (2006).
Issues of constitutional law are likewise reviewed de novo.
Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc, 500 Mich.
327, 333; 901 N.W.2d 566 (2017). In a divorce case, this
Court reviews the trial court's factual findings for
clear error. McNamara v Horner (After Remand), 255
Mich.App. 667, 669; 662 N.W.2d 436 (2003). "A finding is
clearly erroneous if, after a review of the entire record,
the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm
conviction that a mistake has been made." Id.
"This Court gives special deference to a trial
court's findings when they are based on the credibility
of a witness." Draggoo v Draggoo, 223 Mich.App.
415, 429; 566 N.W.2d 642 (1997).
First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides,
in relevant part, that "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof[.]" U.S. Const, Am I. The First
Amendment applies to the states through the Fourteenth
Amendment. Winkler, 500 Mich. at 337 n 4. Civil
courts may not decide religious doctrinal matters. See
Jones v Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602; 99 S.Ct. 3020; 61
L.Ed.2d 775 (1979); Winkler, 500 Mich. at 337-338.
But the United States Supreme Court has held that, in the
context of resolving a church property dispute, a civil court
may review religious documents if the court is applying
neutral principles of law. See Jones, 443 U.S. at
602-604. By applying neutral principles of law, civil courts
avoid "entanglement in questions of religious doctrine,
polity, and practice." Id. at 603. Therefore,
when examining a religious document, "a civil court must
take special care to scrutinize the document in purely
secular terms, and not to rely on religious precepts . . .
." Id. at 604.
on Jones, appellate courts in other states have
persuasively concluded that religious marital agreements may
be examined when a court applies neutral principles of
law.In Avitzur v Avitzur, 58 N.Y.2d
108, 111; 446 N.E.2d 136 (1983), the New York Court of
Appeals held that the secular terms of a
ketubah agreement, which was entered into as part
of a religious marriage ceremony, could be enforced in civil
court. After the parties were divorced civilly, the
plaintiff, who wished to obtain a religious divorce, sought
to enforce a provision of the ketubah requiring the parties
to appear before a rabbinical tribunal having authority to
resolve issues of traditional Jewish law. Id. at
112. Accepting the plaintiff's allegations as true for
the purpose of a motion to dismiss, the Avitzur
court concluded that the ketubah constituted a marital
contract in which the parties had agreed "to refer the
matter of a religious divorce to a nonjudicial forum."
Id. at 113-114. Such an agreement was "closely
analogous to an antenuptial agreement to arbitrate a dispute
in accordance with the law and tradition chosen by the
parties." Id. at 114. The ketubah "should
ordinarily be entitled to no less dignity than any other
civil contract to submit a dispute to a nonjudicial forum, so
long as its enforcement violates neither the law nor the
public policy of this State." Id. at 114. The
defendant argued that enforcement of the ketubah in civil
court would impermissibly entangle the civil court in
religious matters. Id. The Avitzur court
rejected that argument, cited Jones, and stated that
the case could "be decided solely upon the application
of neutral principles of contract law, without reference to
any religious principle." Id. at 115.
In short, the relief sought by plaintiff in this action is
simply to compel defendant to perform a secular obligation to
which he contractually bound himself. In this regard, no
doctrinal issue need be passed upon, no implementation of a
religious duty is contemplated, and no interference with
religious authority will result. . . . To the extent that an
enforceable promise can be found by the application of
neutral principles of contract law, plaintiff will have
demonstrated entitlement to the relief sought. . . .
Odatalla v Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super 305, 309-312;
810 A.2d 93 (Ch Div, 2002), the New Jersey Superior Court
cited Jones as well as Avitzur and
concluded that a mahr agreement contained with an Islamic
marriage license could be enforced. "As in
Jones, supra, no doctrinal issue is
involved-hence, no constitutional infringement."
Id. at 310.
Furthermore, the Mahr Agreement is not void simply because it
was entered into during an Islamic ceremony of marriage.
Rather, enforcement of the secular parts of a written
agreement is consistent with the constitutional mandate for a
"free exercise" of religious beliefs, no matter how
diverse they may be. If this Court can apply "neutral
principles of law" to the enforcement of a Mahr
Agreement, though religious in appearance, then the Mahr
Agreement survives any constitutional implications.
Enforcement of this Agreement will not violate the First
Amendment proscriptions on the establishment of a church or
the free exercise of religion in this country. [Id.
here argues that the trial court erred in enforcing the mahr
provision in the Islamic marriage certificate because the
Legislature has not prescribed a method to resolve religious
issues. However, the trial court expressly and repeatedly
stated that it was not applying religious principles
or doctrines but was instead applying Michigan common law
regarding contracts. It is abundantly clear from the record
that the trial court applied Michigan common law regarding
contracts and determined that each of the elements for
establishing a valid contract were met. Plaintiff makes
no argument challenging any particular element for
establishing the existence of a contract. Nor does plaintiff
cite any authority for his contention that a neutral
principle of law must be derived from a statute rather than
from Michigan common law when examining a religious document.
A party may not simply announce a position and leave it to
this Court to make his arguments and search for authority to
support his position. Wilson v Taylor, 457 Mich.
232, 243; 577 N.W.2d 100 (1998). Failure to adequately brief
an issue constitutes abandonment. McIntosh v
McIntosh, 282 Mich.App. 471, 484; 768 N.W.2d 325 (2009).
In any event, the persuasive analyses in Avitzur and
Odatalla reflect that neutral principles of law may
be derived from a state's common law of contracts.
Plaintiff's argument is devoid of merit.
next argues that the trial court erred in relying on
Avitzur because the religious agreement in that case
called for submission of postmarital disputes to a rabbinical
tribunal such that there was no judicial involvement in
religious doctrine. By contrast, plaintiff argues, the trial
court in this case applied Islamic principles to find that a
contract existed. Plaintiff refers to the fact that the trial
court heard testimony from two imams, one presented by each
party, to support his contention that the trial court applied
religious principles in this case. Plaintiff's argument
lacks merit and reflects his misunderstanding of the analysis
in Avitzur. Although the content of the marital
agreement in Avitzur differed from that of the
contract in this case, the relevant part of the holding in
Avitzur was that the case could be decided solely
through the application of neutral principles of contract
law. Avitzur, 58 N.Y.2d at 115. The same conclusion
is reached here because the trial court applied neutral
principles of contract law that did not require consideration
of religious doctrine. See id. Although the trial
court allowed each party to present testimony from an imam
regarding the cultural implications of the Islamic marriage
certificate, the trial court repeatedly emphasized that it
would not rely on such testimony in determining
whether a contract exists and that the court would instead
apply Michigan law, and this is exactly what the trial court
did when it decided the contract issue. The record thus
refutes plaintiff's assertion that the trial court
decided the case on the basis of religious principles.
next argues that the Islamic ceremony standing alone is not
recognized as a legal marriage in Michigan, and he claims
that the parties' subsequent civil ceremony was somehow
ineffective (even though he signed the marriage certificate).
This argument fails for multiple independent reasons.
Initially, plaintiff has waived this issue by failing to
include it in his statement of questions presented. River
Investment Group, LLC v Casab, 289 Mich.App. 353, 360;
797 N.W.2d 1 (2010); MCR 7.215(C)(5). Further, plaintiff
fails to clarify why he thinks the purported absence of a
legal marriage is relevant to the issues he has raised on
appeal. He provides no cogent argument that his contractual
obligation to pay $50, 000 is contingent on the existence of
a legal marriage. The trial court found that the
consideration for the $50, 000 mahr was the Islamic marriage
ceremony and the party that occurred that night. Plaintiff
fails to acknowledge or address the trial court's finding
on this point. Plaintiff also fails to provide an analysis of
the contractual language to support any contention that his
obligation to pay $50, 000 was contingent on a legal
marriage. Plaintiff cannot leave it to this Court to make his
arguments for him. Wilson, 457 Mich. at 243. His
failure to adequately brief the issue constitutes
abandonment. McIntosh, 282 Mich.App. at 484.
Plaintiff also fails to discuss the trial court's
pretrial ruling denying plaintiff's motion for a
declaratory judgment that the ...