Will Calls for Distribution “According to Islamic Laws and Sharia”; Pennsylvania Court Gives Twice as Much to Each Son as to Each Daughter

That seems to be what happened in Alkhafaji v. TIAA-CREF Individual and Instit. Services LLC, 2010 WL 1435056 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. Jan. 14, 2010), which is now on appeal. I’m posting about this now because the briefs were just posted on Westlaw, and confirm the details of the will, as well as giving some extra perspective on the disputes related to what Sharia law provides in such situations.

Prof. Abbass Alkhafaji died, and left a will that apparently said, in relevant part,

(4) About my pension, the beneficiaries are all my biological kids and my current wife, … after reducing all costs associated with the house…. [The] rest of the pension, if any left, should be divided according to Islamic Laws and Sharia….

(9) In case I have additional monetary benefits from my job, such as life insurance, 401K, 403B or any other retirement funds that I am not aware of, Allah as my witness, They should be divided, after costs associated with the payment of those funds according to Islamic Laws and “Sharia.”

The trial court entered an order that concluded with, “(1) TIAA-CREF Individual and Institutional Services LLC, shall make distribution of the pension accounts of the TIAA-CREF certificates … to the decedent’s surviving spouse, … in accordance with decedent’s last will and testament dated July 17, 2007, and to his biological children, … in accordance of the law of Sharia, mainly [sic], one-eighth share to the surviving spouse, … and thereafter, the remaining balance to be divided, two shares each to the six male children, and one share each to the [two] female children.”

Now if Prof. Alkhafaji had specified in his will that he was leaving a 1/8 share to his wife, and then 1/8 to each of his sons and 1/16 to each of his daughters, that would be fine, regardless of whether his motivation was religious or secular. (This is subject to any state law that might give his wife the power to get some minimum prescribed share, but apparently this was not argued in this case, perhaps because part of the argument — which I won’t get into here — was that Prof. Alkhafaji had left his wife certain assets for the duration of her life, with only the remainder after her death to be split between the children.) People are free to discriminate based on sex, religion, race, and so on in their wills, including in their gifts to their children.

But apparently the will had no such specific provision; rather, it called for distribution under religious law. This raises two questions:

(1) May a court interpret a will — or a contract, deed, trust instrument, or what have you — that calls for the application of religious law (whether Islamic law, Jewish law, canon law, or any other religious law)? Or does the Establishment Clause preclude courts from deciding what, say, Islamic law actually requires, at least if there’s a controversy between the parties about what the “true” interpretation of the religious law should be? Here, one side argues that under Islamic law, the contested provisions of the will are invalid, and that the court erred in relying on the widow’s interpretation of Sharia law; to quote the appellee’s brief, 2011 WL 1573386:

The Court’s determination that the pension should be distributed by giving the widow one eighth of the estate, with the remainder going to the children with two parts for each male and one part for each female, was not only a violation of the terms of the MDA, but also an incorrect interpretation of Shariah law. Had the trial court consulted an expert or referenced judicial texts rather than an interested non-expert, it would have noted that the will offered by a person who is in the illness of death is invalid under Shariah law. The illness of death is defined as the illness which would most likely lead to death. In other words, had the court correctly interpreted Shariah law, it would have found paragraph four of Decedent’s most recent will to be invalid. Because Shariah law is codified in judicial texts which were referenced at the trial court level, and the trial court failed to consult those texts, it committed an error of law when it incorrectly interpreted Shariah law.

(2) May a court apply a foreign or religious legal rule that requires discrimination based on sex, religion, race, and the like, when it is doing so in the course of interpreting a will, contract, etc., on the theory that the court is simply effectuating the author’s discriminatory preferences rather than itself engaging in constitutionally suspect discrimination?

Here’s my tentative answer to question (1), based on an earlier post: I think courts must refuse to interpret religious terms of wills and other such documents, because of what I call the No Religious Decisions strand of Establishment Clause caselaw. Here’s a very brief summary of that strand: In a long line of cases (such as Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church (1969)), the Supreme Court held that secular courts may not resolve religious questions, such as which rival church group most closely follows orthodox church teachings. Some states had rules, borrowed from English law, under which the more orthodox group would get to keep the church property, presumably on the theory that this would be more in keeping with what was intended by past donors to the church. But the Court held that such rules may not constitutionally be applied by civil courts (paragraph break added):

First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice. If civil courts undertake to resolve such controversies in order to adjudicate the property dispute, the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern. Because of these hazards, the First Amendment enjoins the employment of organs of government for essentially religious purposes; the Amendment therefore commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine. Hence, States, religious organizations, and individuals must structure relationships involving church property so as not to require the civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical questions.

The Georgia courts have violated the command of the First Amendment. The departure-from-doctrine element of the implied trust theory which they applied requires the civil judiciary to determine whether actions of the general church constitute such a “substantial departure” from the tenets of faith and practice existing at the time of the local churches’ affiliation that the trust in favor of the general church must be declared to have terminated. This determination has two parts. The civil court must first decide whether the challenged actions of the general church depart substantially from prior doctrine. In reaching such a decision, the court must of necessity make its own interpretation of the meaning of church doctrines. If the court should decide that a substantial departure has occurred, it must then go on to determine whether the issue on which the general church has departed holds a place of such importance in the traditional theology as to require that the trust be terminated. A civil court can make this determination only after assessing the relative significance to the religion of the tenets from which departure was found.

Thus, the departure-from-doctrine element of the Georgia implied trust theory requires the civil court to determine matters at the very core of a religion — the interpretation of particular church doctrines and the importance of those doctrines to the religion. Plainly, the First Amendment forbids civil courts from playing such a role.

Now one could argue that this only applies to “resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine” when called on to do so by a special state-created legal rule, such as the preference for the more orthodox group, and that such resolution of doctrinal controversies could take place when interpreting voluntarily entered into contracts, wills, deeds, trusts, and the like. But I think the logic of the Court’s decision encompasses all civil court decisions about what is the right interpretation of legal doctrine (as opposed to questions, which arise in religious exemption schemes, about whether a claimant sincerely believes in a particular interpretation), especially given the later decision in Jones v. Wolf (1979). And that’s the view lower courts have taken: “[A] court can invoke a secular interpretation of church deeds, by-laws and canons, thereby avoiding judicial entanglement in issues of religious doctrine, polity and practice. When the application of this standard requires judicial involvement in a [religious] doctrinal question, however, it may not be relied upon.” “[P]rovisions in deeds or in denomination’s constitution for the reversion of local church property to the general church, if conditioned upon a finding of departure from doctrine, could not be civilly enforced [quoting and endorsing a concurring opinion in a different Supreme Court case].” See also this decision.

And I think this rule is right, even though it does make things difficult for religious people who want the religious terms of their wills and contracts enforced. The alternative, after all, is for courts to take sides in deciding which rival religious view — say, which understanding of Islamic law — is right and which is wrong, which would itself involve discrimination in favor of one religious subgroup (the one whose view is adopted by the civil courts as the true view of Islamic law, Jewish law, etc.) and against another religious subgroup. That strikes me as worse than civil court abstention from all attempts to decide how to interpret religious concepts.

Fortunately, religious observers who want their disputes settled according to religious law generally have a simple solution: They can provide for arbitration by some religious tribunal that they choose, and courts will generally then enforce the result of that arbitration. Civil courts will no longer be called to decide what Islamic/Jewish/etc. law “really” requires, yet religious believers can have their disputes adjudicated under religious principles. And in fact there are such arbitral bodies around, in a wide range of religions, and they are often used. And if people want their property distributed under religious law after their death, they can just set forth in secular terms their instructions (e.g., “1/8 to my wife, 1/8 to each of my sons, 1/16 to each of my daughters”) rather than incorporating the religious law by reference.

For more on related questions in the context of kosher enforcement laws — and proposed halal enforcement laws — see here and here. For the backstory on who is challenging the will and why, see this later opinion.