Maryland Supreme Court To Hear Religious Freedom Case

Orthodox Jewish plaintiff claims court’s refusal to recess trial over Shavuot violated his religious rights.
— Rabbi Avi Shafan

A Silver Spring, Maryland Orthodox Jew’s claim that judges in the Montgomery County Circuit Court violated his religious rights by refusing to recess his medical malpractice suit over the Jewish holiday of Shavuos is now before the state’s highest court.

Alexander Neustadter is charging that the judges considered the “efficiency of the docket” to trump his need to observe the Jewish holiday, which observance includes restrictions that prevented him from appearing in court.

Agudath Israel of America filed a “friend of the court” brief  in the Maryland Court of Appeals in support of Mr. Neustadter’s position.  The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s protection of citizen’s free exercise of religion, the brief claims, well covers cases like the one being considered by the Appeals Court.  It notes that Mr. Neustadter filed a number of motions calling the court’s attention to his inability to appear in court during the two days of Shavuos, and the similar inability of his lawyer, who would be acting as his agent, to attend the trial on those days.  The motions were denied.

Although the Agudath Israel brief makes clear that the organization takes no position on Mr. Neustadter’s malpractice suit itself, it takes strong issue with a contention made by the defendant in the suit that the holiday of Shavuos is strictly observed only by “a subsect of the Orthodox Jewish faith” – an assertion Agudath Israel calls “completely untrue and legally irrelevant.”  As to what is legally relevant, the Orthodox group’s brief cites U.S. Supreme Court rulings that being forced to choose between a religious obligation and a court penalty generally constitutes an abrogation of an American’s religious rights.

Only a “compelling state interest,” the brief continues, can legally justify such an abrogation of a fundamental right – and the “efficient and orderly administration of justice” – which the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, ruled justified the lower court’s rejection of Mr. Neustadter’s motions – does not satisfy that requirement.

Although there are in fact scattered legal precedents for considering the efficient administration of justice to trump individual rights, the Agudath Israel brief cites the particular cases and explains how each of them is qualitatively different from the case before the court.

The Agudath Israel brief was authored by the organization’s Washington Office director and counsel, Rabbi Abba Cohen, Steven A. Loewy, a prominent Rockville, Maryland attorney, assisted by Agudath Israel legal intern Miss Jenny Figa.

“The courts of our country are looked up to by the public as the guardians of the laws of our country,” the Agudath Israel submission concludes. “If a court can trample on an individual’s ability to observe his religion, as was done in this case, the message to employers, teachers, and all others in positions of authority over others is clear: interests of efficiency are more important than respecting an individual’s religious observances.”


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