Sharma v. Sharma
Sharma v. Sharma
Kansas Appellate Court decision on First Amendment Religious Rights, 1983
By: J. Richard Foth
Date: August 4, 1983
Source: J. Richard Foth. "Sharma v. Sharma." Pacific Reporter, Second Series. 667 (1983): 395.
About the Author: J. Richard Foth served as the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeal for Kansas from 1977 to 1985. The Court of Appeals is the highest court in the state of Kansas, empowered to hear all types of civil and criminal law appeals.
Sharma v. Sharma is an unusually constituted divorce proceeding that was decided by the Court of Appeals for Kansas in 1983. The proceeding engaged issues not commonly adjudicated in a divorce action, namely the constitutionally protected right of freedom of religion, coupled with the relationship between a civil divorce decree and the religious consequences associated with it.
Even in a modern America that is far less homogeneous and far more culturally diverse than it was as recently as the end of the Second World War, there is a certain incongruity when a Kansas court, situated in the heart of the American Midwest, weighs the tenets of the Hindu religion against what in all other respects seems a straightforward divorce action based upon incompatibility.
The petitioner, Niranjan Sharma, sued for a grant of divorce from his wife, Mridula Sharma. Under Kansas law, as in many other American states, a person may advance a claim for divorce regardless of their nationality or citizenship; residency in the state of Kansas for the prescribed period prior to the application is the important precondition. It is for this reason that Mr. Sharma could sue for divorce even though neither he nor his wife were American citizens. Once a divorce is granted by a court of competent jurisdiction, it will invariably be recognized in all other legal jurisdictions.
The case was heard at the Court of Appeals when Mridula Sharma appealed the order after the initial trial court granted the divorce requested by her husband. He had advanced his claim for a divorce based upon the grounds of incompatibility, a broad basis for divorce that is common in all jurisdictions where the legislation permits a form of no-fault divorce. She argued that Hinduism does not recognize divorce, and granting this request would have devastating social consequences when she returned to India.
Proceedings advanced by one party or the other on the basis of incompatibility are usually uncontested; the grant of the divorce order is independent from the determination of any other property, spousal support, child support, or child custody claims. In the Sharma proceedings, the only issue before the court was the issuance of the divorce.
Sharma v. Sharma
FOTH, Chief Judge:
The defendant, Mridula Niranjan Sharma, appeals from an order granting a divorce to her husband, Niranjan Sharma. The parties are citizens of India and Hindus of high caste. [In Hindu culture, people are grouped into one of four social divisions known as varna, or castes, plus a fifth group known as the untouchables.] The wife contends that the order dissolving her marriage violates her constitutionally guaranteed right of free exercise of religion. She informs us that the Hindu religion does not recognize divorce, and that if she returns to India as a divorced woman, her family and friends will treat her as though she were dead. The husband disputes this, but even assuming that the wife's interpretation of Hindu personal law is accurate, we must affirm.
It has long been recognized that under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, freedom of belief is absolute. The law may, however, regulate conduct prompted by religious beliefs when the individual's interest in the free exercise of religion is outweighed by a compelling state interest.
The wife contends that Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972), requires that her religious beliefs prevail. We disagree. In Yoder, the United States Supreme Court found that the State's requirement of compulsory school attendance until age 16 was in irreconcilable conflict with the religious beliefs of the Amish defendants. Formal high school education beyond the eighth grade not only exposes Amish children to values that they reject as influences that alienate man from God, but it also takes them away from the traditional training that imparts the attitudes and skills necessary for life in the Amish community. This is not such a case, for the granting of a divorce to the husband does not deny the wife her religious freedom.
We find only one case in which the present issue has been considered, Williams v. Williams, 543 P.2d 1401 (Okl.1975) … In response to a wife's contention that the divorce granted to her husband contravened the religious vows taken by the parties and the authority of God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stated:
The action of the trial court only dissolved the civil contract of marriage between the parties. No attempt was made to dissolve it ecclesiastically. Therefore, there is no infringement upon her constitutional right of freedom of religion. She still has her constitutional prerogative to believe that in the eyes of God, she and her estranged husband are ecclesiastically wedded as one, and may continue to exercise that freedom of religion according to her belief and conscience. Any transgression by her husband of their ecclesiastical vows, is, in this instance, outside the jurisdiction of the court….
We agree with the Oklahoma court's analysis and find it applicable here. The wife here may take such view of their relationship after the decree as her religion requires, but as a matter of law the civil contract has been dissolved.
In addition, the husband apparently does not share his wife's religious beliefs about divorce, since he sought the decree. Under these circumstances, to compel him to remain married because of the wife's religious beliefs would be to prefer her beliefs over his. Any such preference is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The government may not "aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." … We discern no constitutional infirmity in the decree dissolving the marriage.
The wife also claims that the husband is estopped [prevented] from filing for divorce because the marriage was contracted with specific reference to the parties' religious beliefs, and that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of incompatibility. She conceded at oral argument that the estoppel claim was never presented to the trial court; therefore it is not properly before us…. Although the parties' testimony differed as to the cause and intensity of their quarrels, the record reveals competent substantial evidence that the parties were incompat-ible. Thus, the trial court's finding on this point must stand.
This decision is noteworthy for its factual and constitutional issues. Sharma is the only reported decision in the United States that discusses the rights of a married Hindu woman in the context of a disputed civil divorce. But for the religious question, there would be no seeming obstacle to granting the requested divorce, as the Court found that the grounds of incompatibility between the spouses were predominant.
The critical issue to be determined was the relationship between the Mridula Sharma's First Amendment rights to practice her religious beliefs, one of which is that marriage is inviolate and cannot be terminated, and those of the husband, who advanced a contrary view. The court neatly preserved the First Amendment safeguards in its finding that the civil grant of a divorce does not disturb the Sharma's ability to treat their marriage as each of them may see fit for their private religious purposes. This is consistent with a long line of American cases that speak to the division between church and state; the Court of Appeals was careful to confirm that what a Hindu or any other person who practices their religion may hold about marriage or any other concept is unquestionably their own.
The Court did not address the point advanced by the wife concerning her anticipated loss of social status in India if she were divorced, although the claimed loss of status in India is a social and not a legal consequence, as India abolished the caste system in 1949. The language of the ruling indicates little sympathy in the court, a body rendering its verdict from a relatively egalitarian American perspective, for the prospect of protecting the defendant's high-caste reputation. Such arguments clearly struck the court as far removed from the legal requirements of a divorce application in Kansas.
In cases where a court is asked to rule on a concept not within its range of knowledge or experience, an expert witness will be called by one (or both) parties to provide evidence that the court may consider. Here there was a clear conflict between the parties as to the applicable Hindu religious law regarding divorce. A plain reading of the Indian Hindu Marriage Act (1955), creates eight distinct grounds of divorce, including adultery and cruelty; no evidence of this sort was called at the initial trial proceedings to clarify the issue of whether a divorce was not permitted in Hindu religious law.
Kindregan, Charles P., Jr. "Same Sex Marriage: The Cultural Wars and the Lessons of Legal History." Family Law Quarterly. 38 (2004) 427.
Washburn University School of Law. "Survey of Kansas Law: Family Law." 2004 〈http://classes.washburnlaw.edu/maxw/publications/surveyoflaw1984.htm〉 (accessed June 19, 2006).