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NY court illegitimately steps into church affairs

ADF attorneys urge state appellate court to respect constitutionally protected freedoms of Coptic orthodox church, bishop

Tuesday, Jul 9, 2024

NEW YORK – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, together with attorneys from Nelson Madden Black, filed an opening brief Monday with the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, in David v. Funti, a case in which the lower court unconstitutionally stepped into church affairs.

At issue in the case is whether Bishop Anba David officiated a marriage sacrament between a mother and father after he baptized their son at St. Mary & St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, a New York City church within the bishop’s jurisdiction. The bishop answered that religious question, filing an affidavit in court that said he blessed the mother and father but did not—and could not—marry them. New York recognizes religious marriages as legally binding.

A trial court in a putative divorce action, however, refused to give credit to the bishop’s answer; enforced subpoenas targeting Bishop David, the local priest, the local church, and the diocese; and subjected Coptic clergy to three days of interrogation about church doctrine, law, and practice, with potentially more to come. Attorneys explain that, in so doing, the trial court violated the First Amendment in myriad ways, ignored precedent, and effectively denied that churches have autonomy in religious matters.

“The First Amendment guarantees the authority and religious liberty of churches, and only churches, not civil courts, can decide whether a religious marriage occurred,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “We are urging the court to respect this church’s religious autonomy, credit the bishop’s word saying that no religious marriage occurred, and end these unconstitutional proceedings against the bishop, local priest, church, and diocese.”

As the brief explains, the Coptic sacrament of marriage is a quintessentially religious matter grounded in church doctrine, practice, and tradition; only churches, not civil courts, can decide whether a religious marriage occurred, and civil courts must defer to the bishop’s religious ruling that no marriage took place.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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