ODATALLA v. ODATALLA
355 N.J.Super.305, 810 A.2d 93 (2002)
The parties were married in a religious ceremony on June 15, 1996 and executed an Islamic Marriage Contract that included a mahr provision. The mahr agreement provided that the mahr would be one golden pound coin as an immediate payment and $10,000 U.S. dollars as a deferred payment. The wife filed for divorce based on extreme mental cruelty and sought specific performance of the mahr agreement. The husband objected to the enforceability of the mahr agreement on two grounds: (1) the First Amendment precluded the court from reviewing the mahr agreement, as it would violate the separation of church and state doctrine; and (2) the agreement is not valid under New Jersey contract law.
Whether the mahr agreement is valid where the evidence proved that the husband made an offer, the wife accepted the offer, and the husband intended to bind himself to the contract by paying a portion of the mahr.
The Court, consistent with Supreme Court jurisprudence, held that the Court would not violate the separation of church and state doctrine when reviewing the mahr agreement. The Court noted that as long as it applied neutral principles of law to the validity and enforceability of the mahr agreement, “then the Mahr Agreement survives any constitutional implications.”
In applying neutral principles of law ( i.e. the principles of contract law in New Jersey) to the mahr agreement, the Court found that the mahr agreement was valid and enforceable under New Jersey law because the husband voluntarily bound himself to the agreement. The Court noted that the videotape that was admitted into evidence showed the husband freely making an offer to the wife by signing the mahr agreement, the wife accepting the offer by signing the agreement and the husband intentionally binding himself to the agreement by making the first payment required by the mahr. Moreover, by using the parole evidence rule to interpret the meaning of the written words of the contract, the Court found that the $10,000 deferred portion of the mahr was due on demand or upon the death of the husband or dissolution of the marriage.
It is noteworthy that the Court, while not stating so in the published decision, equitably distributed the marital property, assets and debts and made a finding as to alimony.