In Victory for ‘Chained’ Wives, Court Upholds Orthodox Prenuptial Agreement

First Ruling Beth Din of America’s 20 Year Old Contract

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By Paul Berger

Published February 08, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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When Rachel and Eben Light signed a version of the prenup in June 2001, it came as two separate documents. The couple omitted the document allowing a beit din to arbitrate their divorce, and signed only the document related to the financial penalty for failure to grant a get, which is one reason the case ended up in secular court.

Last July, Rachel Light sued in Connecticut Superior Court, saying that although the couple had separated several years earlier, Eban Light refused to grant his wife a religious divorce.

Now 34, Rachel Light asked the court to enforce the provision in the prenup ordering her husband to pay her the agreed sum — $100, adjusted for inflation — for each day he refused to grant the get. Even without adjusting for inflation, if the couple separated three years ago and a court enforced the financial penalty from the day they separated, Eben Light would be forced to pay $110,000. He has appealed the decision. A hearing has been scheduled for March.

The Lights declined to speak to the Forward. In court documents, Eben Light argued that the BDA prenup was a religious matter and, as such, it was unconstitutional for a secular court to enforce the contract.

In his opinion, Judge Mark Gould found that enforcing the BDA prenup was no different from enforcing a secular contract. He cited several precedents where secular courts had enforced Jewish and Islamic marriage contracts, including Odatalla v. Odatalla, when a New Jersey court enforced an Islamic mahr agreement — a payment made by a groom to his bride upon their marriage — which had been signed in Iran.

Gould noted that the Odatalla case relied on three prior decisions related to Jewish religious divorce. In the best known of the three, Avitzur v. Avitzur, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 1983 that it was constitutional for a secular court to enforce a ketubah, or marriage contract, drawn up by Conservative Jewry to prevent agunot.

Marc Stern, associate general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said that from a legal standpoint, Gould’s decision was unsurprising. But Stern said it was noteworthy that Gould appeared to treat the Orthodox prenup in the same routine way he would treat any other any secular prenuptial contract he came across in Connecticut.

“Courts are now prepared, as once they were not 60 years ago, to enforce this sort of prenup agreement,” Stern said. “And that’s very heartening.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or him on Twitter @pdberger


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