Monday, January 23, 2012

Lawsuit requests the exhumation of Christian woman's body from Jewish cemetery

The Congregation Ahavath Achim, a Conservative Jewish community located in Colchester, CT, has recently become embroiled in a civil lawsuit with one of its own members over the burial of a Christian woman in the interfaith section of one of the Jewish cemeteries it manages. According to a memorandum issued by Judge Robert Martin in 2011, the cemetery in question was originally managed by the Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation, which merged with Congregation Ahavath Achim in 1999. Per the merger agreement, responsibility for the cemetery transferred to Congregation Ahavath Achim with the stipulation that no non-Jew be buried in the Jewish sections of the cemetery. In 2009, Congregation Ahavath Achim elected to construct an interfaith section next to the existing Jewish section.

The plaintiff, Maria Balaban, who was previously a member of the Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation and now a member of Congregation Ahavath Achim and serves as a board member for the cemetery, has filed a motion with the Connecticut Superior Court suing Congregation Ahavath Achim for violating the terms of the merger agreement and disregarding what she says is the intended purpose of the interfaith section: to allow for the burial of non-Jewish spouses and family members and those who have close connections to Congregation Ahavath Achim. Spokespersons for Congregation Ahavath Achim maintain that the interfaith section was created as a resting place for anyone, regardless of religious or congregational affiliation. As part of the suit, Balaban, who owns multiple burial plots in the cemetery and also has many relative interred there, is requesting a temporary injunction for the disinterment and relocation of the body of Juliet Steer, the Christian woman buried in the interfaith section of the cemetery. Since Steer had no ties to the Congregation, Balaban argues that the burial and continued interment of Steer’s body violates the intended purpose of the interfaith section and infringes on her rights as an owner of burial plots in the cemetery.

While this case, at first glance, seems to be a simple matter of whether or not a legally binding merger agreement was upheld, a larger issue is at stake; that of the proper role of government involvement in religiously motivated and informed disputes. For all parties concerned, sincere religious belief and desire to adhere to a particular religious legal code has informed their respective actions throughout the events in question. In ruling on this case, Judge Martin will be called to consider and decide the merits of the competing arguments informed by religious sentiments. Underpinning both the wording of the merger agreement and Balaban’s personal concerns with the internment of Steer’s body in the cemetery is the recognition of certain Jewish burial laws that stipulate who can be interred in a Jewish cemetery and in what fashion. It is well established that Jewish law forbids the burial of non-Jews with Jews in the same cemetery. Certainly, Balaban’s religious motivations have solid ground to stand upon. Yet, to acknowledge the validity of Balaban’s religious motivations obliges us to also consider the religious motivations of both the Steer family and Congregation Ahavath Achim. It has been reported that before she died, Juliet Steer requested she be “buried just like Jesus, according to Jewish customs” and was thus interred in the Jewish cemetery under the guidance of her brother Paul Steer and the full consent and support of Congregation Ahavath Achim. Some members of the Congregation have expressed outrage with Balaban’s request for Steer’s body to be exhumed and moved, citing Jewish burial law that stipulates that a body should never be exhumed from its resting place.

If Judge Martin chooses to allow this case to continue to trial, he will, in effect, assert the right of the government to monitor, correct, and dictate the proper interpretation of religious belief, doctrine, and moral and legal codes. Allowing this case to go to trial with the possibility of granting the injunction to exhume Steer’s body strips the Steer family and the members of Congregation Ahavath Achim, including Balaban, of their ability to define their faith on their own terms and places that power directly in the hands of a jury of their "peers" who may or may not have any familiarity with Jewish burial customs. Certainly, similar court cases have done just that, often to the benefit of the deceased person’s own or familial wishes. However, in this instance, the only real potential victim in this case is the Steer family, who, unaware of the internal conflict over the interfaith section, chose to honor her wish to be laid to rest according to her sincere, though unconventional, faith convictions.


Alexis A said...

This is an intriguing issue, but I do not understand how Balaban hopes to succeed in court when she, along with several other members of the board, agreed to allow people of differing faiths to be buried in the interfaith section. Unless it is written somewhere that only those who are related to the congregation in some fashion are permitted to be buried there, her belief that the plots would be reserved for those who had ties to the congregation is irrelevant. I would also like to know which of her rights is being infringed upon. She has the right to be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery in a manner that is consistent with her beliefs, but neither she nor the state of Connecticut has the right to determine if someone is Jewish enough to be buried in a cemetery that accepts all faiths.

Rebekah said...

I agree with Alexis. Mrs. Balaban’s personal feelings about the matter are beside the point unless they reflect a legal agreement. If in any legal documents it was stipulated in exactly what ways gentiles must be related to Jewish members in the cemetery or to Ahavath Achim, it a legal problem not a religious one.

I don’t believe that allowing this case to go to trial will “assert the right of the government to monitor, correct, and dictate the proper interpretation of religious belief, doctrine, and moral legal codes.” I understand how the case may be perceived this way if Mrs. Balaban’s concerns do reflect a legal agreement and therefore lead to the exhumation of Mrs. Steer’s remains. However, as Mrs. Balaban has been accused of being a racist, there appears to be no legal agreement to this effect.

Carrie B said...

This is an extremely interesting case. I think that Kyle was exactly right when he says "...a larger issue is at stake; that of the proper role of government involvement in religiously motivated and informed disputes." I am curious as to the legal standing of graveyards. In cases such as this, are the grouped under the religious organization? Are there specific laws that apply to them that don't apply to religious organizations?

salmineo66 said...

So, removing the hot bed issues of religion, cemetery, and race why then have any legally binding contract or agreement for the merger of two organizations and the transference of real property? Why then if a contract with deed restriction is prepared by competent attorneys representing both organizations and said contract is then entered into and considered binding by the same organization now acting as defendant, can the issues not be heard by a judge and jury?
If this was a retail strip mall property anchored by a super market with the lease stipulation that no other grocery type business be permitted to also lease space in same mall, would that be permissible to be heard in court?
If not, then religious organizations nation wide should feel free to engage in transactions with out regard for contract law.