Removal of Barriers to Marriage DRL Section 253 Doesn’t Cover Annulment

Posted by Martin E. FriedlanderNov 16, 20230 Comments

           In Devita v. Devita, the Nassau Supreme Court considered whether granting relief for a potential violation of Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”) § 253(2) would cause a violation of DRL § 253(9). DRL § 253(2) states that when a party begins a proceeding for a divorce or for an annulment of a marriage, then that party must take all steps within his or her power to remove any barrier to remarriage for the other party in the proceeding. DRL § 253(9) states that the court is not authorized to inquire into or determine any ecclesiastical or religious issues. In Devita v. Devita, the Plaintiff-husband sought injunctive relief to prevent the Defendant-wife from appealing the annulment of their marriage within the Roman Catholic Church, claiming that because, in their matrimonial case, she had filed a counterclaim seeking a divorce, she too was bound by the limits of DRL § 253, compelling her to remove any barrier to the remarriage of her ex-husband.   

            After obtaining a legal divorce, the Plaintiff-husband in this case began the process of obtaining a religious annulment within the Roman Catholic Church. In June 2023, the annulment was granted. However, the Defendant-wife opposed the annulment and appealed the decision according to the procedures established by the Roman Catholic Church. The appeal process within the Church can take up to eight years before a final decision is reached. After the ex-wife submitted her appeal to the Church, the Plaintiff-Husband filed an Order to Show Cause with the Nassau County Supreme Court, seeking to prohibit his ex-wife from appealing the annulment. The ex-husband claimed that not only was his ex-wife in violation of DRL § 253 by creating a barrier to his remarriage, but that she was violating both his constitutional right to practice his religion and to marry because, without being granted an annulment from the Church, the ex-husband could not get married within the Catholic Church. If he chose to marry civilly, he would still be considered married to his first wife within the Church and he could be prevented from participating in religious practices.  

            The ex-husband did not seek enforcement of this provision because, as he conceded, within the Roman Catholic Church there is no such thing as a religious divorce. The Court found that while a divorce ends or dissolves a marriage, an annulment declares a marriage “invalid or void.” Thus, the provision of the parties' stipulation applying to religious divorce could not be enforced and the only way for the ex-husband to be remarried within the church was if his first marriage were annulled. 

            The Court also considered that the wife was following the protocols as established by the Roman Catholic Church to properly appeal the annulment, and that it was within her rights to ask for the appeal. In light of this and considering DRL § 253(9) which states that the court cannot “determine any ecclesiastical or religious issue,” the court found that it was the ex-wife's religious freedoms at risk, and not those of the husband. If the relief requested by the ex-husband were to be granted, then the ex-wife would be prevented from asserting her rights within the Roman Catholic Church, violating her constitutional right to practice her religion and also violating DRL § 253(9) by determining whether or not the ex-wife could be allowed to appeal an annulment with the practices of her religion. Therefore, the court found that it could not prevent the ex-wife from appealing the annulment of her marriage within the Roman Catholic Church.