Cases & Deals

Synagogue members compel synagogue to follow its bylaws and to arbitrate dispute over synagogue's property before panel of rabbis in Establishment Clause case

Client(s) David Meshel and Tony Gilburt

Jones Day obtained victory in the D.C. Court of Appeals, which ordered arbitration before a panel of rabbis applying Jewish law. This case concerned the "neutral principles" exception to the First Amendment's prohibition of judicial interference with religious organizations' internal affairs and established significant precedent in the Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

The bylaws of an Orthodox Jewish congregation provided that any claim of a member against the congregation that cannot be amicably resolved shall be referred to a "Beth Din" of Orthodox Jewish rabbis for a binding decision according to Jewish law. Three members of the congregation sought a Beth Din to resolve an internal dispute concerning the governing structure of the congregation and the ownership of its property. The congregation refused to participate in a Beth Din and the three members sued pursuant to the District of Columbia Uniform Arbitration Act seeking an order compelling the congregation to submit to binding arbitration before a Beth Din. The congregation obtained dismissal in the trial court on the grounds that the First Amendment precluded judicial determination of whether the Beth Din provision in the bylaws is an agreement to arbitrate subject to judicial enforcement under the Arbitration Act.

The D.C. Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that well-established, neutral principles of contract law can be used to determine whether the Beth Din provision in the bylaws is an enforceable arbitration agreement and, if so, whether the parties' dispute falls within its scope. The court thus held that it had jurisdiction. On the merits, the court concluded that the Beth Din provision does constitute an enforceable agreement between the congregation and its members to arbitrate their underlying dispute before a Beth Din of Orthodox Jewish rabbis.

Meshel v. Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, 869 A.2d 343 (D.C. 2005)