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Menorah Chapels at Millburn v. Needle - 386 N.J. Super. 100, 899 A.2d 316 (Super. Ct. App. Div. 2006)


Both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses are construed to bar civil courts from deciding issues of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical governance. Civil courts cannot interfere with church administration in a manner that impedes the promulgation of church doctrine or interferes in the way that the church wishes its doctrine to be expressed, for in either case, the court's action could be construed as a back-door doctrinal determination or other interference with the free exercise of religion. In contrast, courts may, where appropriate, apply neutral principles of law to determine disputed questions that do not implicate religious doctrine or ministerial functions or result in regulatory entanglement in church matters. Neutral principles are wholly secular legal rules whose application to religious parties or disputes does not entail theological or doctrinal evaluations. Courts should enforce express agreements or implied promises to comply with religious doctrine when they can determine compliance or non-compliance with such agreements by application of neutral principles of law. A matter that would otherwise require abstention as the result of the application of those principles can be heard by a civil court if the parties have agreed to resolution of their dispute in that forum.


On the Friday that his father-in-law died, defendant Emanuel Needle arranged with plaintiff Menorah Chapels of Millburn, promoted as a "Jewish Funeral Chapel," to provide funeral and related services. Because of the Sabbath, commencing at sundown on Friday, the funeral could not be conducted until Sunday, February 21, 1999. Decedent was an orthodox Jew. Menorah Chapels does not contest that it is customary in the orthodox Jewish faith that watchers or shomerim conduct a continuous vigil or shmeerah over the body of the deceased until the time of the funeral. A "Removal, Embalming and Preparation Release Form" pertaining to the deceased and dated February 19, 1999 specified "shrouds & shmeerah." Additionally, the "Statement of Goods and Services Selected" that was executed by Needle on Sunday February 21, 1999 discloses that he requested, and Menorah Chapel agreed to provide, shomerim to conduct the shmeerah. The Statement discloses that six shifts would be necessary to properly conduct the shmeerah, at a cost of $ 900. Menorah Chapel subcontracted the provision of shomerim to a burial society. However, allegedly because of the Sabbath, the society did not provide the requested services, and in fact only three of the six shifts of shomerim appeared, commencing on Saturday evening after the Sabbath had ended. Neither Needle nor any of his family members was informed of the failure to provide the full contracted-for services until shortly before the funeral service was to commence and after the body had been left alone in a fashion contrary to orthodox Jewish custom and belief. In October 1999, the Chapel brought a collection action against Needle in the Special Civil Part, demanding the full cost of its funeral services, subject to a $ 390 discount as the result of the absence of three shifts of shomerim. Needle entered a general denial of the allegations of the complaint and filed a counterclaim in which he alleged that the failure to provide the required shomerim constituted negligence and breach of warranty resulting in emotional distress to the family. Needle asserted that he was entitled to a substantial discount due to the funeral home's failure to provide the full contracted-for services. A judgment was entered in favor of the Chapel. Needle appealed from the order of summary judgment on the complaint and dismissal of the counterclaim, and additionally appealed from the award of counsel fees against him.


Was the court’s consideration of this matter barred by the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment?




The court explained that he contract for funeral services executed in this case provided that: "All disputes involving this agreement shall be resolved in accordance with New Jersey law and may be heard in the Superior Court, Law Division. . . ." Accordingly, consent to resolution of this matter by a civil court thus existed. The court found no evidential support for the motion judge's conclusion that the contract provisions regarding the enumerated goods and services was severable because such an intent clearly was not manifested by the parties at the time that the contract for services was executed. The court further found that Needle’s counterclaim for emotional distress was dismissed in error as caselaw supported the recovery of damages for emotional distress arising out of a breach of contract.

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